The new multi-billion dollar bill contains a number of emergency economic measures designed to assist working people and families dealing with the virus — including free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment benefits for those laid off related to the virus. Provisions in the bill expanding food assistance alone would cost $1 billion; a Congressional Budget Office score is expected later in the day.
“It will be in the billions, and I won’t go beyond that, but it will be costly,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters. “But I will tell you this: It will be much more costly if we don’t provide relief.”
One thing that didn’t make it was President Donald Trump’s big ask: a payroll tax cut, which Hoyer called a “nonstarter” Wednesday. There was near-universal Democratic opposition to the payroll tax cut, which would likely benefit only companies and a subset of workers. Even members of Trump’s party expressed skepticism about the president’s idea, saying they’re not sure it would be effective. But they are pressing on paid sick leave.
Senate Democrats released their own plan for paid sick leave Wednesday (something that’s in the House bill as well). Both proposals stand at odds with the White House plan to target economic relief like low interest rates toward specific industries, including travel and hotel industries as well as oil and gas companies, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported.
Getting the bill over the finish line will mean a sorting of priorities. Democrats want to make sure cost doesn’t impede workers from getting the health care they need and that taking the time off from work to quarantine isn’t a problem. Republicans tend to be more preoccupied with stabilizing the economy. But unlike a lot of partisan fights, this one seems to be more about when — not if — this bill will be worked out. The growing coronavirus threat could be a good motivator for bipartisan cooperation.
“We believe the help should be aimed at people, not at corporations,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a Wednesday press conference. “We believe the help should be targeted at the people who have suffered from this coronavirus, directly or indirectly.”
Congress already passed an $8.3 billion supplemental bill designed to boost the US public health response to coronavirus last week. While this one is focused on shoring up the economy, it has a serious public health component as well.
“We’ll have to worry about the costs at some point in time,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “This is an emergency; we need to get this done.”
Here is what’s in Democrats’ stimulus bill
Even though this is an economy-focused bill, Democrats have been clear it’s also about public health. They especially want to ensure there are no cost barriers to getting tested if families are uninsured or underinsured, and that workers who might have contracted the coronavirus don’t feel the need to keep working, thereby spreading the disease to others.
Pelosi and Schumer blasted Trump for not mentioning coronavirus testing in his Wednesday night address announcing a partial travel ban for European nationals coming to the US, which contained multiple errors.
“Alarmingly, the president did not say how the administration will address the lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the United States,” Pelosi and Schumer said in their joint statement. “We urge Republicans in the House and Senate to help immediately pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.”
Here’s what’s in Democrats’ proposal.
- Emergency paid sick days: The bill requires all employers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave, and provide an additional 14 days to be available immediately during the coronavirus (many employers are asking employees to work from home for that amount of time). It ensures sick leave to those impacted by quarantine orders, or those who must stay home to care for their children. The bill reimburses small businesses (those with 50 or fewer employees) for the cost of the 14 additional days of leave.
- Emergency paid leave: The bill would create a new federal emergency paid leave program for those unable to work because they either have COVID-19, are quarantined, is caring for someone with COVID-19, or is caring for a child due to coronavirus-related school closings. Eligible workers would receive benefits for a month (the program goes up to three months), and the benefit amount would be two-thirds of the individual’s average monthly earnings. Those receiving pay or unemployment compensation directly through their employers aren’t eligible. There is some precedent for this; Congress expanded unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks for Americans left unemployed by the 2008 financial crisis.
- Expanding food security: The bill directs $1 billion to expanding access to programs like WIC and the emergency food assistance program throughout the coronavirus outbreak. Progressive economists have long believed that expanding existing safety net programs is a highly effective way of stimulating the economy because the sorts of low-income people who benefit from them are highly likely to immediately spend any extra money they get — helping stabilize economy-wide demand. The 2009 stimulus bill featured many provisions along these lines. Conservatives, who are critical of those programs in general, tend to be highly skeptical of putting more money into them.
- Free coronavirus testing: Democratic leaders are proposing making coronavirus testing free to increase access by requiring private health insurers (plus government programs like Medicare and Medicaid) to cover the cost of testing, including emergency room visits and doctor fees in the process. Free testing is being offered in a number of states, but there’s no federal regulation mandating it so far.
- Increasing the capacity of the US medical system and ensuring affordable treatment: The bill also calls on insurance providers to reimburse coronavirus patients for any non-covered costs related to coronavirus. Again, they’re hoping this gets more people treated and makes it so people don’t put off going to the doctor because they are worried about costs.
What happens next
House members plan to vote on the bill Thursday before flying out for a previously scheduled district work period, and the Senate could vote on it soon after.
With reports of new coronavirus-related layoffs and a rising number of cases, there’s increased incentive for Senate Republicans to vote for the bill. But whether they support it will likely come down to whether President Trump does, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday.
“The secretary of the Treasury [Steven Mnuchin] is going to have control for the administration, and I expect that will speak for us as well,” McConnell said. “We’re hoping he and the Speaker [Pelosi] pull this together so that we’re not playing partisan games at a time which seems to me to cry out for bipartisan, bicameral agreement.”
Early reports suggested Trump would go along with the House bill, Politico reported Wednesday. Barring unforeseen circumstances or disagreements, Senate Republicans could sign the bill soon and send it to Trump’s desk.
There’s plenty of incentive to act as fast as possible. Congress realizes they have a fast-growing national crisis on their hands, and stock markets are still panicky and looking for some assurance from the government.