House lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill en masse Thursday to clear a $483 billion COVID-19 aid bill — the first time in nearly a month that chamber has gathered for a vote amid the pandemic.
House leadership hoped to clear the bill through unanimous consent, significantly reducing the number of lawmakers who had to return to Washington, but the likelihood at least one lawmaker would object led them to call members back.
Following nearly four hours of debate, the House voted 388-5 to send the package to President Donald Trump, who says he will sign it. The Senate approved the measure Tuesday by voice vote with six senators on the floor.
Four House Republicans voted against the package: Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Jody B. Hice of Georgia, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. They were joined by one Democrat: New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Justin Amash, I-Mich., voted 'present.'
Congressional approval marks the end of a two-week, bitterly partisan fight between Republicans, who initially wanted a two-page bill to put more money into the Small Business Administration's so-called Paycheck Protection Program, which burned through $349 billion in about two weeks.
Democrats weren't about to give up their leverage on other priorities so easily, however, and wound up securing aid for smaller businesses in low-income areas and more money for cash-strapped hospitals, as well as funding to expand coronavirus testing.
Democratic leaders and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, with input from GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, finally reached agreement Tuesday, shortly before Senate passage. The legislation would provide:
- $321 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program's forgivable loans to cover payroll and other fixed costs for small businesses. Of that figure, $60 billion is reserved for smaller lenders.
- $50 billion to backstop some $350 billion in additional emergency disaster loans for small businesses, another oversubscribed program that's out of money, along with $10 billion for grants of up to $10,000 each that disaster loan recipients can obtain.
- $75 billion for hospitals and other health care providers, and $25 billion for COVID-19 testing.
Millions more unemployed
The bill’s passage follows yet another dismal jobless report earlier Thursday, when the Labor Department announced 4.4 million more Americans filed for unemployment insurance last week, bringing the total to more than 26 million people out of work in the past five weeks.
Top Democrats, and Trump himself to an extent, have already pledged support for another round of aid that could pick up items left out of the current bill, like money for states and localities that are experiencing steep budget shortfalls exacerbated by the pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he opposes more state and local aid beyond the $150 billion provided last month, however, and he's also wary of tacking more debt onto the national credit card without extensive debate involving the full Senate.
“We’re not ready to just send a blank check down to states and local governments to spend any way they choose to,” McConnell said Wednesday on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.
And Democrats want to tack on an extension of new jobless benefits through the fall, which Republicans and some small businesses say are too large to compete with to hire back workers when their doors reopen. All of which promises an extended fight starting as early as next month, when both chambers theoretically will return to session.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats want the next bill to be “big, broad and bold” — a far cry from the go-slow approach his GOP counterpart is recommending.
For the moment, however, House debate on the "interim" aid measure was overwhelmingly supportive, though several lawmakers traded familiar partisan barbs.
“Our work is not done. Everyone knows this is not enough and due to Republican opposition, this package fails to provide necessary relief to our local, state and tribal governments," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said the final bill only provides help for "unbanked" communities — where small businesses struggled to get SBA loans because they lacked relationships with larger, traditional banks — because Democrats held their ground in the negotiations.
House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, urged his colleagues to vote for the bill, saying “it is targeted, it will have an immediate impact and it deserves strong bipartisan support.”
But Brady took aim at Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not acquiescing to the administration's original request to simply increase funding for the small-business loan program, and worry about other issues later.
“It is unfortunate that Speaker Pelosi decided to hold up this bill nearly 16 days while small business and their workers desperately fought to hold on,” Brady said.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Pelosi shot back during floor debate. She said any delay was caused by Republicans who "refused to accept the fact that we needed $100 billion for our hospitals and our testing, that we needed more money for those who do not have sophisticated banking relationships."
Gloves, face masks for all
Even though the content of debate was somewhat familiar, the structure was significantly different than debate on the $2 trillion aid package enacted last month. During that House debate, lawmakers packed into the chamber only separating themselves by one seat.
Before walking onto the House floor Thursday, members walked past tables with disposable gloves and face masks — a reminder of the disease that so far has infected nearly 850,000 Americans and claimed the lives of 47,000.
Nearly all of the members on the floor wore disposable face masks, though House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., sported a homemade New England Patriots face mask.
Voting on the aid bill was also much different than anything members experienced before, with lawmakers assigned to one in a series of nine groups to reduce the number of people on the floor at one time. The socially distanced voting series took about two hours to complete.