Senate back on track to vote on massive coronavirus package

The Senate is on track to pass a mammoth $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package Wednesday evening after leaders agreed to an amendment vote aimed at appeasing a small group of GOP senators, overcoming a last-minute hurdle that had delayed quick passage of the bipartisan deal.

Senate leaders were hoping to vote earlier on the legislation, which will deliver much-needed emergency aid to nearly every sector across the U.S., including $1,200 checks to many Americans. But the timeline slipped after Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) opposed speedy consideration of the measure over concerns it would encourage employees to be laid off instead of working.

At issue is language surrounding beefed-up unemployment insurance, which they say would allow workers to be paid more on unemployment than what they were making while employed.

To mollify those concerns, leaders have agreed to allow an amendment vote on the floor, according to sources familiar with the matter. After that vote — which is expected to fail — senators can turn to final passage, sending it over to the House.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi chided the GOP quartet for holding up the historic package, especially since it has bipartisan support from congressional leaders and the White House.

“We’re talking about $600,” Pelosi said in an interview on PBS NewsHour Wednesday evening. “People are scared, they’re in need, they have additional expenses. I don’t need to explain that to you.”

The emergency package, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, comes after five days of tense negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. It includes a dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance, a rescue fund for state and local governments, immediate cash for hospitals and a huge pool of grants and loans for small businesses.

The House, meanwhile, is expected to take up the bill as early as Thursday evening. Democratic leaders have promised to give members a 24-hour notice before the scheduled vote. And Pelosi and her leadership team spent much of the day on conference calls briefing their members about the plan, even as the bill text was held up in the Senate.

It is Congress’s third major bill in response to the crisis, which has infected 55,500 Americans and brought the U.S. economy to a standstill, and will not be the last.

“Today, the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm,” McConnell said in an emotional speech about how the nation would fight and beat the coronavirus crisis. “Our nation needed us to go big and go fast and they did.”

“This is not even a stimulus package — it’s emergency relief,” McConnell said.

Ahead of the bill’s release, Mnuchin huddled with Senate Republicans on a conference call and senators have been given near-final drafts to review.

Pelosi had originally hoped to bring the bill up via unanimous consent after Senate passage, a voting method that would not force lawmakers to return to Washington. But she said later Wednesday that House leaders were looking at other options, noting that at least some Republicans were on their way to Capitol Hill to object to the legislation when it moves to the House.

Congressional leaders are now hoping to pass the package in the House with a voice vote — similar to unanimous consent in that members aren’t required to be present but the lawmakers in the chamber can verbally register their opposition or support. The Democratic whip team is also figuring out a process for potential proxy voting, which would require a rule change but would mean fewer members have to return to the Capitol compared to a roll call vote.

Still, a single member could object and demand a roll call vote. Pelosi has already advised her members that they may need to return to Washington, telling Democrats Wednesday that House leaders are talking to Capitol Police and the attending physician in preparation.

Multiple members would not be able to attend votes, including the two lawmakers who are battling the coronavirus — Reps. Ben McAdams and Mario Diaz-Balart — as well as several others who are self-quarantining after possible exposure. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) also said Wednesday that he has developed symptoms of the virus — but cannot get a test because of the national scarcity — and will be self-quarantining at his home.

House Republican leaders have privately acknowledged that there’s a strong possibility that a member will object to a unanimous consent agreement.

There has been plenty of last-minute drama with the Senate package. A furious New York Governor Andrew Cuomo held an emergency call with the House’s New York delegation at 11 a.m., where he told them “New York is dead’ and they needed to push for a stronger package, according to people familiar with the call.

Cuomo later grew emotional during a press conference, lashing out at the Senate’s bill as “a drop in the bucket” for his state, which now has 30,611 coronavirus cases.

Shortly after, Schumer, who represents New York and signed off on the bill, organized his own teleconference for his state’s delegation to help rally support for the bill.

Still, Democrats have touted wins in the package, including $130 billion in funding for hospitals; a massive temporary expansion of unemployment benefits; federal oversight of a $500 billion fund to aid distressed industries; and a prohibition on access to loans or investments from the new programs to any of Trump’s personal businesses.

Republican aides, however, accused Schumer of exaggerating some of his “wins” and countered that the GOP never objected to more money for hospitals or oversight of the $500 billion fund for corporations.

Pelosi and other top Democrats have been fielding questions and complaints from their caucus in a series of calls Wednesday as rank-and-file Democrats complained that their priorities weren’t included in the Senate deal.

Pelosi and her team reiterated that they will continue to fight for many of those proposals, noting there will be opportunities in the fourth stimulus bill Congress is all-but certain to craft. House Democrats are expected to be briefed on a full caucus call sometime after the Senate text is unveiled.

“This is not going to be the last bill,” Pelosi said on PBS. “This bill is about mitigation for the [economic] damage that is being done … The next phase will be recovery.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blessed the deal in a statement Wednesday afternoon, and later told reporters at a press conference that he prefers a voice vote over a unanimous consent request.

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who frequently objects to Congress’s biggest spending packages and isn’t beholden to party leadership, has also scoffed at the deal on Twitter, but signaled he won’t hold it up “if they have majorities to pass it.”

Marianne Levine contributed to this story.

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