Lawmakers, many in masks, debate mammoth new aid package


By Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram - Associated Press



WASHINGTON (AP) — A nearly $500 billion measure helping businesses and hospitals ride out the coronavirus’ devastation edged toward House passage Thursday, as lawmakers’ face masks and bandannas added an eerie tone to Congress’ effort to aid a staggered nation.

“Millions of people out of work,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted, and the uncertainty of it all.”

The day’s debate was almost overshadowed by social distancing steps that produced a stark image of how the pandemic is changing what used to be normal behavior in Washington.

As Pelosi spoke, she lowered a white scarf that had covered much of her face. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy delivered the opening prayer wearing a yellow protective mask, and most lawmakers and aides on the chamber’s sparsely populated floor wore masks as well.

With the entire Capitol closed to the public, visitors’ galleries were set aside for lawmakers in an effort to separate them.

The package was headed toward certain, overwhelming approval later Thursday, an action that would send the measure to President Donald Trump for his signature. The Senate approved the legislation Tuesday.

But partisan divides remained over the government’s response to the country’s unprecedented health and economic crises — some of them literally visible.

Of the roughly two dozen lawmakers on the chamber’s floor as debate began, just two were not wearing masks — Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky.

In addition, Republicans chided Democrats for holding up the initial version of the bill by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which included just $250 billion, all of it for small businesses.

After two weeks, GOP leaders agreed to expand the bill as Democrats insisted on more money for small businesses in minority and rural communities, hospitals and for virus testing.

During that period, the government exhausted an initial $250 billion lawmakers had provided in earlier emergency legislation — triggering a partisan blame game as the virus’ damage continued.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, accused Pelosi of delaying the money as “small businesses and their workers desperately fought to hold on.”

And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blamed Pelosi for the 4.4 million additional people who filed for jobless benefits last week, saying, “I don’t know how anybody could be proud of that.”

Pelosi blamed Republicans and McConnell for the holdup, saying Democrats had improved a GOP-written “corporate-oriented trickle-down bill.”

She also singled out McConnell for at first opposing adding any money to his original $250 billion package and saying cash-strapped states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy, a move they currently cannot do and that would threaten a broad range of state services.

“Oh, really?” Pelosi said. “What made you think that was a good idea?”

A government report Thursday showed that since the virus hit the U.S., a previously unthinkable 26 millions Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, about 1 in 6 workers.

Despite the political rhetoric, large majorities of both parties were sure to back the measure by a wide margin.

Anchoring the bill is a request by the Trump administration to replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses.

Supporters are already warning that more funds will be needed almost immediately for the business-backed Paycheck Protection Program. Launched just weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.

Battle lines are forming over the next measure amid growing demands to help out state and local governments, the Postal Service and first responders.

Pelosi said she would name it the “Heroes Act” because it will include more money for first-responders and other state and local costs. She and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Md., said it will also include more money for hospitals, direct payments to individuals and an extension of beefed up unemployment payments until the fall.

McConnell has said the Senate will pause before jumping onto the next bill. He has said he wants to consider the impact on the swelling national debt of the $2.5 trillion Congress will now have provided with four bipartisan bills addressing the pandemic and supporting the economy.

The bill being approved Thursday started two weeks ago as a simple Trump-sought $250 billion replenishment of the oversubscribed payroll subsidy program and grew from there. The payroll program provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

It also contains $100 billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing program, along with a $60 billion set-aside for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighborhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders. There’s also $60 billion for small-business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster aid program.

The House planned to conduct its roll call votes under social distancing rules, with dozens of lawmakers voting at a time grouped in alphabetical order.

Pelosi has also orchestrated a vote to establish a select panel to provide oversight of the government’s efforts to battle the coronavirus, a move decried by Republicans as playing politics with the crisis.

Trump has said he supports including fiscal relief for state and local government in another virus aid package along with infrastructure projects.

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AP reporter Laurie Kellman contributed.

By Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram

Associated Press