The deal is done — in the Senate anyway — and the $2 trillion Phase 3 coronavirus relief package will face a vote shortly after noon when the Senate reconvenes and be on its way to the House of Representatives for the lower chamber’s vote. The deal was announced shortly after 1 a.m. on the floor of the Senate by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the unprecedented stimulus package a “war-time” level of mobilization by the United States government.
“At last, we have a deal,” McConnell said early hours of Wednesday morning (March 25). “After days of intense discussions, the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic.”
The package comes as the final of three bills passed by Congress in the last two weeks to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging both the U.S. healthcare system and economy. The Phase 1 bill was an $8.3 billion bill spurring coronavirus vaccine research and development. Collectively they cost about $112 billion. Phase 2, passed last week and signed by President Donald Trump, focused on providing paid emergency sick leave for some workers, as well as boosting aid for state unemployment insurance and food assistance, all at a cost of roughly $104 billion. At a cost of over $2 trillion, Phase 3 costs 10 times what Phases 1 and 2 cost — and the bi-partisan negotiations of the deal have been unsurprisingly tense, particularly because the negotiations are occurring on a ticking clock as businesses remain shut down, consumers are being laid off or furloughed from work and bills are coming due at the end of the month. Shouting matches on the Senate floor, insults traded in media and incendiary tweets have been the norm for a little under a week.
Now that a deal has been reached, it will go to the floor of the Senate for a vote sometime after the Senate comes back into session at noon. So what does it include, who will benefit and how fast will this become law?
Something for Every Asker
The text of the bill has as yet not been publicly released, but leaders from both parties have already began outlining the highlights in advance of the vote.
Among the more contentious issues in negotiation of the bill was a $500 billion loan program for both large businesses and municipalities grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. The $50 billion going to the airline industry comes out of this funds pile. That loan program will happen, but with oversight by a new inspector general in the Treasury Department and by Congress. The fund is also limited by a provision that, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, will “prohibit businesses controlled by the President, Vice President, Members of Congress, and heads of Executive Departments from receiving loans or investments from Treasury programs.” There will also reportedly be a $367 billion fund in the bill aimed at providing loans for small businesses, though senators have offered no official comment on that subject as of yet.
The bill also includes $150 billion in expanded funds for medical facilities treating COVID-19 patients, to be put toward medical equipment and healthcare worker protections. Of that money, $100 billion will go to hospitals, $1 billion will go to the Indian Health Service and the remainder will be used to increase medical equipment capacity. State and local governments will also be seeing $150 billion increased federal aid to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on their local communities.
Unemployment also got a major bump. “Unemployment on steroids” has become the popular way to refer to the expansion of the program to absorb surge in claims. The new bill will increase unemployment insurance by $600 per week for four months — and extends benefits gig economy workers, freelancers and furloughed workers who are still getting health insurance from their employers but who are not being paid.
And, in the part of the package most American citizens have been watching with the most interest, the Senate bill does contain provision to make direct payments of $1,200 to the vast majority adults making less than $75,000 annually, and $500 per child in qualifying households. That seems to be a change from the first iteration of the policy put forth, which would have lowered payments significantly to individuals who do not have taxable income. The program also phases out payment level as income increases.
The law has the 60-vote super-majority it needs to pass the Senate when it goes to the floor later today (March 25), at which point the whole package will head over to the House of Representatives for debate and passage.
What happens in the house, however, remains a bit of a jump ball. Earlier in the week Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced her own variation of the Phase 3 stimulus package, a $2.5 trillion version of the deal. The House could debate that and send it to the Senate — though it is far more likely they will take up the Senate bill in an attempt to keep the process moving forward fast.
If that is the case, how exactly the House will take up the bill is also up in the air, as members are working remotely and there is a concern about calling them into close quarters in DC during a national health crisis. Current thinking, actively being promoted by House Rules Chair Jim McGovern, is to simply pass the bill by a process called unanimous consent. This basically allows a bill to pass as long as no one objects to it, even if the majority of House members are absent from the chamber at the time. The risk of unanimous consent is being hit by any single lawmaker physically present objecting and causing a further delay in proceedings.
Given the urgency of the situation, it might be reasonable to assume no individual House member would want to be known as the person who delayed relief to millions of American citizens and businesses, thus that kind of last-minute objection is unlikely.
What is not being considered at this point, however, is remote voting by House members — which some fear could be unconstitutional at worst and setting a terrible precedent at best.
What does seem fairly certain, however, is that the bill will pass in the House as written as it has the votes — and the main issue at this point is a logistical one about how to stage voting on it during a pandemic. President Trump has already indicated he will sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.
As for when the funds will start flowing? That remains an unknown at this point, as there has been no official word from any source. But speculation thus far is given the scale of the payouts — citizens may not be seeing those funds until May the earliest.