U.S. Senate, White House reach deal on $2T coronavirus rescue package

The White House and Senate leaders of both parties announced agreement early Wednesday on an unprecedented $2 trillion US emergency bill to rush sweeping aid to businesses, workers and a health-care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic response bill is the largest economic rescue measure in U.S. history

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The White House and Senate leaders of both parties announced agreement early Wednesday on an unprecedented $2 trillion US emergency bill to rush sweeping aid to businesses, workers and a health-care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The urgently needed pandemic response bill is the largest economic rescue measure in history and is intended as a weeks-long or months-long patch for an economy spiralling into recession and a nation facing a potentially ghastly toll.

Underscoring the effort's sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that's half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

"A fight has arrived on our shores," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we're going to win it."

"To the American people, we say: 'Big help, quick help is on the way,'" Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York, said Wednesday morning on CNN.

But not enough help, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other. "I'm telling you, these numbers don't work."

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the package "goes a long way." He said it requires strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don't benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.

Both McConnell and Schumer said they expected approval by the Republican-led Senate later in the day. That would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House, where the timetable for votes is unclear and whose members are mostly scattered around the country.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the bipartisan agreement "takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people," but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.

"House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action," she said.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders hope to clear the measure for President Donald Trump's signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington, but that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.

Top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. Some final pieces of the agreement need to be finalized in detailed legislative language.

Stocks opened higher on Wall Street Wednesday morning upon news of the deal. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose two per cent, the gains coming after the Dow had its biggest percentage gain since 1933 on Tuesday.  

The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

The economic rescue package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

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One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

McConnell, a key negotiator, said the package will "rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation's health care fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar."

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill and created tensions among Congress' top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was never an option, which permitted both sides to mark big wins.

Coverage for workers, tax credits for businesses

The package would give one-time direct payments to Americans — $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of Schumer, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

"It ensures that all workers are protected whether they work for businesses small, medium or large, along with self-employed and workers in the gig economy," Schumer said.

Schumer also announced that businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for assistance from receiving loans or investments from new Treasury programs.  

Republicans won inclusion of an "employee retention" tax credit that's estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50 per cent of workers' paycheques. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2 per cent Social Security payroll tax.

Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund and money for cash-strapped states. 

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bank rescue, officials said.

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