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House passes coronavirus economic relief package with Trump’s support

The bipartisan vote sends the legislation to the Senate. It includes paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing, money for food stamps, and more.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The House overwhelmingly passed an economic relief bill early Saturday for the coronavirus, dedicating tens of billions of dollars for paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing and other measures to help Americans impacted by the crisis.

The 363-40 vote — gaveled down just before 1 a.m. — capped two days of volatile negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that threatened to fall apart entirely for hours Friday amid GOP misgivings. But even after President Trump criticized House Democrats at an afternoon news conference Pelosi and Mnuchin kept at it, speaking by phone 13 times in the course of the day Friday and finally clinching a deal.

Not long thereafter Trump endorsed the legislation over Twitter, ensuring widespread GOP support.

“This Bill will follow my direction for free CoronaVirus tests, and paid sick leave for our impacted American workers,” Trump wrote, adding that he was directing Cabinet secretaries to issue regulations ensuring small businesses would not be hurt by mandates in the bill.

“I encourage all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES! I will always put the health and well-being of American families FIRST,” the president wrote. “Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke March 14 about a bill to aid Americans hit by the coronavirus crisis. Senators are expected to pass it. (Video: AP)

The House vote sends the legislation to the Senate, which is expected to pass it next week after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) canceled a planned recess so senators could act on the issue. All of the “no” votes Saturday came from Republicans, while one lawmaker — Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) — voted “present.”

In a letter to Democratic lawmakers Friday night, Pelosi thanked them for their patience through the ups and downs of the talks, which began when House Democrats released a version of the legislation Wednesday with a number of provisions Republicans opposed.

“While we could have passed this bill on our own, I believe it was important for us to assure the American people that we can work together to manage this crisis," Pelosi wrote. “Tonight’s legislation presents a strong stimulus to our economy to protect the health and financial security of America’s working families as we fight the coronavirus crisis.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered rare praise for Pelosi after the deal was struck, and said: “Regardless of the partisanship here, at this time in this place, we will come together to put the American public first.”

Both leaders made clear that the legislation agreed to Friday would be followed by further relief measures as the coronavirus wallops all sectors of the economy and American life. That could, potentially, include some version of the broad payroll tax cut sought by the president. Already last week Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to address public health aspects of the pandemic, but as the crisis spiraled lawmakers felt they needed to act quickly to provide economic relief to affected Americans.

The deal was negotiated without Pelosi and Trump ever speaking, with Pelosi telling reporters Friday: “There was no need for that,” as she was working through details with Mnuchin.

Wall Street losses continued on March 13, despite efforts from the Federal Reserve to stabilize the economy during the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: Reuters)

The agreement reached Friday is primarily aimed at expanding the safety net to cope with the potentially catastrophic economic impact of the coronavirus. In addition to ensuring free coronavirus testing, the plan would dramatically increase several benefits, particularly family medical leave and paid sick leave, while also bolstering unemployment insurance; spending on health insurance for the poor; and food programs for children and the elderly.

One of the biggest changes is a new paid sick leave guarantee for those impacted by the coronavirus, and reaching agreement on this issue was one of the final sticking points to a deal. Under the agreement, employers would be required to provide 14 days of paid sick leave at “not less” than two-thirds their regular rate. They would qualify for the benefit if they are sick and have to be quarantined or treated for coronavirus, or if they have to leave their jobs to take care of a family member who has coronavirus. Workers would also be eligible for paid sick leave if they have to stay home because they have a child whose school or childcare facility has closed due to the coronavirus.

The agreement also dramatically expands the existing paid family medical and leave program from its current form. Under existing law, employers are required to give “job protected” medical leave for up to 12 weeks — meaning workers cannot be fired — without additional pay. Under the Pelosi-Mnuchin plan, workers taking paid medical leave would also be paid at two-thirds of their typical rate of pay for the 12 weeks. This benefit, which applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees, would be available for a year for people affected by the coronavirus.

House Democrats initially sought to apply the new family leave benefit more broadly across corporate America, but the White House pushed to narrow it to smaller businesses. Mnuchin told Fox Business they expected larger corporations to pick up those costs on their own.

President Trump declared a national emergency in response to coronavirus on March 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

Congressional aides raised concerns that pushing these new benefits onto employers might bankrupt many businesses already trying to contend with the financial blow from coronavirus. Instead, the legislation gives employers a tax credit equal to 100 percent of paid sick leave wage benefits they have paid out. The plan also beefs up unemployment insurance by giving states additional funding to disburse should there be a significant rise in the ranks of the uninsured.

Additionally, the plan seeks to address fears that coronavirus could force many Americans to go without adequate food. The agreement provides $500 million to the women, infants, and children nutrition program; nullifies existing work requirements on the food stamp program; and provides $100 million in food grants to U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. It provides additional funding to nutritional assistance programs for children and the elderly.

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A controversial provision in the bill as originally introduced by House Democrats would have increased the percentage of Medicaid spending borne by the federal government by eight percentage points through Sept. 30, 2021. That would be a welcome relief to states, which could see an influx of Medicaid enrollees in a time of economic crisis. But the price tag for the federal government could have been vast — stretching easily into the tens of billions of dollars. Over the course of negotiations that 8 percentage point increase was reduced to 6.2 percentage points.

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Last week, Congress acted unusually rapidly to pass the $8.3 billion emergency spending bill for more medical supplies, funding for the nation’s health agencies and other measures. But as the crisis mushroomed through the economy, with schools closing, planes and trains half-empty and major sports and entertainment events canceled, lawmakers increasingly saw the need for a major economic relief package — probably a series of them — and did not want to leave Washington for next week’s scheduled recess without acting. Thursday’s massive stock market sell-off rattled lawmakers, although stocks were back up on Friday.

There are now over 1,200 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and more than three dozen deaths, numbers that are expected to exponentially rise. Trump declared a national emergency Friday to free up funds, and lawmakers themselves have been announcing plans in growing numbers to shut down their offices and self-quarantine after brushes with infected individuals. For the second day in a row on Friday, McCarthy convened a conference call with House Republicans rather than meeting with them in person, a step he said helped with health concerns.

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One GOP concern in negotiating the legislation was Trump’s insistence on instituting a broad payroll tax cut to stimulate the economy. He said in a morning tweet that such a cut, increasing paychecks by 7.65 percent for most wage earners, was essential to any recovery package. “Only that will make a big difference!” he wrote.

Lawmakers in both parties have reacted coolly to the proposal, expressing qualms about its cost and the fact that it is not targeted to those directly affected by the pandemic. The legislation negotiated between Pelosi and Mnuchin did not include a payroll tax cut, and that omission emerged as one of the obstacles to reaching a deal.

McCarthy said the payroll tax could be addressed down the road. “We would have liked to have that as well. I think that would have taken a little more time to be able to get that done by this week. But I think you’ll see that continue to come forward,” he said.