President Donald Trump signed the largest fiscal relief measure in U.S. history Friday, just hours after the House cleared the roughly $2.3 trillion package of direct aid to families, businesses, hospitals and states.
The House's voice vote marked the third bill lawmakers have passed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic since congressional briefings on the initial outbreak began two months ago. Those earlier measures bring the total price tag to perhaps $2.5 trillion.
That's the equivalent of over one-tenth the size of the U.S. economy, and a recognition of just how dramatically American life has changed, with businesses and schools shuttered and people across the country being asked to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
“In 20 short days our economy has taken a hit like we’ve rarely seen in American history,” Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said during debate. “Congress must act aggressively and act together now to stem the economic damage.”
The number of confirmed U.S. cases hit more than 97,000 on Friday — the most of any country — and the death toll neared 1,500, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
And on Thursday the economic impact hit home when the Labor Department reported 3.28 million people claimed unemployment insurance for the week ending March 21. That's 3 million higher than the previous week and nearly five times the previous record.
"America is facing a grave enemy in COVID-19. It is in these dark and uncertain times that I’m reminded of why I’m here," said Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass. "I am here to fight for the things that matter to Americans."
House Republicans who normally chafe at spending billions of dollars, let alone trillions, stood up one after another to express support for the package, arguing it was no one's fault that a pandemic has closed America for business.
"I'm concerned about the $2 trillion price tag. But the American people need help," said Kentucky's James R. Comer. "One must ask: What is the cost of not acting?" added Russ Fulcher of Idaho.
On the Democratic side, firebrand liberal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York spoke passionately about the deaths of 13 of her constituents in one 24-hour period earlier this week. But she blasted "corporate bailouts" that she said Senate Republicans demanded.
"We have to go into this vote eyes wide open," Ocasio-Cortez said.
"I rise in support of this bill, not because it's perfect or even sufficient, but because the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans are at risk," said Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., like Ocasio-Cortez a member of the vocal progressive "squad" of freshmen lawmakers.
Full cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office probably won't be ready for some time. Below are the bill's major components, based on legislative text, summaries provided by Senate committees, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an independent watchdog group.
Financial aid to businesses: The measure would deliver almost $910 billion in direct assistance to businesses, through a mix of grants and loans.
That includes $454 billion through new emergency lending facilities at the Federal Reserve for larger companies, with states and cities also eligible; $377 billion in loans to small businesses, much of which won’t need to be paid back if used to maintain payroll; $61 billion in aid to airlines, more than half of it cash grants; and $17 billion in loans to companies considered critical to national security if their continued viability is threatened.
Tax breaks for households, companies: About $590 billion in tax breaks, including the package’s centerpiece tax rebates for individuals and families worth $292 billion. There’s also over $200 billion in business deductions for losses and interest expense, $55 billion in tax credits for cash-strapped firms to avoid job cuts, and employer payroll taxes due this year would be deferred.
The package would also suspend taxes on passenger tickets, jet fuel and other levies collected by airlines; expand deductions for charitable contributions; let savers withdraw money from retirement funds early without penalty and use health savings and flexible spending account funds for certain over-the-counter medical purchases without a prescription.
Money for federal agencies, hospitals, states: Roughly $480 billion to help contain and treat the disease through supplemental appropriations, temporary increases in Medicare and Medicaid payments and funding for community health centers.
Hospitals and other health care providers would get $130 billion, with another $17 billion for veterans health care. There’s $27 billion for stockpiling medical supplies and research and development on vaccines and drug treatments. States would get $150 billion to refill depleted coffers, while states and localities would get $31 billion for education, $25 billion for public transit systems, and $10 billion would go directly to airports.
Unemployment insurance, nutrition and housing aid: About $300 billion would flow to laid-off workers and low-income households struggling to pay their bills.
Most of that would be for a new supercharged unemployment insurance regime that will provide an extra $600 a week in jobless aid through July 31, plus extend regular unemployment compensation by 13 weeks after state benefits are exhausted. The package also contains over $40 billion to boost food stamps and school meal programs, child care funding and rental housing assistance.
House leaders intended to live up to their "social distancing" mandate and limit the number of lawmakers needed on the House floor through passing it by unanimous consent or by voice vote.
However, a threat from Thomas Massie, R-Ky., to call for a recorded vote led House leaders to call on members to return to Washington in order to assemble the necessary quorum, or majority of the House.
Trump promptly called out Massie via tweet for "grandstanding" and said he should be expelled from the GOP. "He just wants the publicity," Trump wrote.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made a beeline for Massie when he entered the chamber. The animated conversation swiftly moved from the GOP side of the aisle to the front of the chamber where McCarthy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Massie huddled together.
Massie was unbowed, however, tweeting his intention to call a recorded vote even as he was getting hectored. But ultimately Massie's bid was thwarted when he couldn't get one-fifth of members present to stand and second his request, which under House rules precludes a recorded vote in this situation. Subsequently, the bill passed by voice vote.
House debate lasted about four and a half hours, longer than originally expected as leaders scrambled to assess the floor vote situation.
Floor debate was somewhat more crowded than normal, as members who returned appeared to go directly to the chamber and stay that the whole time. Members had to contact their leadership ahead of time to schedule when they would speak.
When the House came into session at 9 a.m. there were about 45 members on the floor — not all of them sitting six feet apart. Members didn't appear to be restricted from going in or out any of the doors they wanted, but many preferred to stay in their seats throughout the debate.
There were four spots on the floor that members spoke from, each of which had a canister of disinfecting wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Some members used the disinfecting wipes to wipe down the tabletop podiums beforehand, but many spoke as they normally would.
Lawmakers used their elbows or rear ends to push open the swinging doors to enter and exit the chamber. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, brought an aerosol can of Lysol disinfectant spray, which he spritzed toward a colleague when he leaned in too close.
House doorkeepers propped open the doors to all the third floor galleries overlooking the chamber just after noon, allowing lawmakers to practice social distancing by sitting in the balconies rather than crowding on the House floor.
Those who didn’t travel back to Capitol Hill for the vote were allowed to record brief statements to air on C-SPAN, which agreed to make an exception amid the crisis.
“In a first for the 41-year old cable network, C-SPAN has responded to a special request earlier today from [House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer] to help connect members of Congress with the public during the unprecedented public health crisis created by Covid-19,” the cable network said in a statement.
More out the door?
Despite more than $2 trillion on its way out the door, members on both sides of the aisle made clear this week that more legislative responses may be necessary.
Lawmakers and stakeholders have already called out various problems and omissions in the bill, such as lower payments for the District of Columbia than the states; caps on small-business loans that hoteliers say will push them out of business; and lack of safety regulations protecting hospital workers and other first responders in danger of coronavirus exposure.
"This package is not the first response to COVID-19. Nor will it be the last," said House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore.
The Senate is currently scheduled to be out until April 20, and House lawmakers left town after the vote, until a date to-be-determined.
Niels Lesniewski, Griffin Connolly and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.