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Congress, White House strike deal for a $2 trillion stimulus package

Wednesday, March 25, 2020   /   by Juan Grimaldo

Congress, White House strike deal for a $2 trillion stimulus package

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WASHINGTON — Senators and Trump administration officials reached an agreement early Wednesday on a sweeping, roughly $2 trillion stimulus measure to send direct payments and jobless benefits to individuals as well as money to states and businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation, which is expected to be enacted within days, is the biggest fiscal stimulus package in modern American history, aimed at delivering critical financial support to businesses forced to shut their doors and relief to American families and hospitals.
Struck after midnight, the deal was the product of a marathon set of negotiations among Senate Republicans, Democrats and President Donald Trump’s team that nearly fell apart as Democrats insisted on stronger worker protections and oversight over a new $500 billion fund to bail out distressed businesses.
The deal was completed after a furious final round of haggling between Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, after Democrats twice blocked action on the measure as they insisted on concessions.
Mnuchin and Eric Ueland, the White House legislative affairs director, were on Capitol Hill late Tuesday and early Wednesday, shuttling between the Republican and Democratic leaders’ offices as they worked out final details.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, announced the deal from the Senate floor after 1:30 a.m. Eastern.
“At last, we have a deal,” he said, adding later, “In effect, this is a wartime level of investment into our nation.”
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Lawmakers and aides were still drafting portions of the bill early Wednesday.
“I’m hopeful that over the next few hours we’ll finish what’s left and be able to circulate it early in the morning,” Ueland told reporters on Capitol Hill.
A vote was expected in the afternoon, McConnell said, after the Senate reconvenes at noon.
The compromise was a package whose sheer size and scope would have been unthinkable only a couple of weeks ago. Its cost amounts to several hundreds of billions of dollars more than the entire U.S. federal budget for a year, and administration officials said they hoped that its effect on a battered economy would be exponentially greater, as much as $4 trillion.
“This is not a moment of celebration but one of necessity,” Schumer said as he took careful note of the changes his party had secured in the legislation. “To all Americans I say, ‘Help is on the way.’”
The resulting measure is an attempt to sustain the workers and businesses that are losing income as vast sections of the American economy are shutting down under quarantine orders and to help the economy rebound quickly once the pandemic abates.
It includes direct support for companies large and small that have lost all or most of their customers in recent weeks and direct payments to low- and middle-income families. The package also includes measures meant to encourage companies to keep employees on their payrolls even if their businesses have shuttered temporarily — and it increases aid to workers who are laid off anyway or have seen their hours and wages cut back.
“We have either clear, explicit legislative text reflecting all parties or we know exactly where we’re going to land on legislative text as we continue to finish,” Ueland said.
The president, after lobbing insults at Democrats late Monday for their demands in the final stages of negotiations, called on lawmakers to approve the deal by the end of the day.
“Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today,” Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday. “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy. Our workers will be hurt!”
Mnuchin, preparing to leave Capitol Hill early Wednesday, described the measure to reporters as “a terrific bill.”
“I’ve spoken to the president many times today,” he said, “and he’s very pleased with this legislation and the impact that this is going to have.”
The measure will be the third legislative action taken by Congress this month to address the pandemic. Trump previously signed both an $8.3 billion emergency aid plan and a sweeping package providing paid leave, free testing and additional aid for families affected by the pandemic.
The House is in recess, with some of its members sick or in quarantine and concerned about flying back to Washington. Leaders were considering approving the mammoth proposal by unanimous consent, or UC, a tactic usually reserved for minor, uncontroversial measures.
“What I’m saying is we want to do it as soon as possible. The best way to do that as soon as possible is to have agreement on the legislation,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, appearing on CNN. “We’re doing UC to make the biggest possible difference in the shortest period of time.”
In the final measure, lawmakers agreed to a significant expansion of unemployment benefits that would extend unemployment insurance by 13 weeks and include a four-month enhancement of benefits, officials familiar with the unfinished agreement said. Democrats said that it would allow workers to maintain their full salaries if forced out of work as a result of the pandemic.
In the interim, lawmakers also agreed to provide $1,200 in direct payments that would apply equally to workers with incomes up to $75,000 per year before phasing out and ending altogether for those earning more than $99,000. Families would receive an additional $500 per child.
After complaints from Democrats, a $500 billion fund — $425 billion for the Federal Reserve to leverage for loans in order to help broad groups of distressed companies and $75 billion for industry-specific loans — will now have far stricter oversight, in the form of an inspector general and a 5-person panel appointed by Congress, lawmakers said. Companies that accept money must also agree to halt any stock buybacks for the length of the government assistance, plus an additional year.
Democrats also secured a provision that will block Trump family businesses — or those of other senior government officials — from receiving loan money under the programs, Schumer said in a letter to Democrats.
Both Pelosi and Schumer, on separate calls laying out the deal for their Democratic colleagues, said they had secured $130 billion for hospitals, $55 billion more than originally agreed to, people familiar with the calls said, as well as $150 billion for state and local governments.
“Like all compromises, this bill is far from perfect,” Schumer said early Wednesday on the Senate floor. “But we believe the legislation has been improved significantly to warrant its quick consideration and passage.”
The agreement also includes $350 billion that would establish lending programs for small businesses but only for those who keep their payrolls steady through the crisis. Small businesses that pledge to keep their workers would also receive cash-flow assistance structured as federally guaranteed loans. If the employer continued to pay its workers for the duration of the crisis, those loans would be forgiven.
Lawmakers in both chambers have also acknowledged that it is likely other legislative measures will be needed in the coming months to counter the consequences of the pandemic.

Author: Emily Cochrane and Nicholas Fandos  –  The New York Times
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