WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s two United States senators joined their colleagues late Wednesday to approve a $2 trillion spending bill that aims to provide economic relief for workers and businesses and to aid hospitals and states reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chamber voted 96-0 to pass the bill in an unusual display of bipartisanship. Pennsylvania Democrat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, of Scranton, and Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, of the Lehigh Valley, both voted “yes,” according to an official Senate roll call.
Speaking to home state reporters ahead of the vote, Casey said the massive bill provides the “basics of what people need,” such as direct cash assistance and other programs, to get by during the pandemic.
“We have to make sure that people have direct support right now,” Casey said. “There are two features to do that right now. It puts dollars in their pocket, which they badly need right now to pay for meals for their family. As well as [aid for] unemployment insurance.”
Toomey, in a separate call with home state journalists, said the bill provides broad-based assistance to shuttered small businesses, the Morning Call, of Allentown, reported.
“If you can think of a business in Pennsylvania, it almost surely qualifies,” Toomey said, according to the Call. “The criteria is extremely broad by design, because the economic fallout is very broad. … Virtually every business qualifies for one or more of these programs.”
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who tested positive for COVID-19, was among the four Republican senators who missed the vote. Utah U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney were under self-quarantine and U.S. Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, was feeling ill.
The bill could become law as soon as this week. U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., alerted his colleagues late Wednesday night that the House plans to consider the measure on Friday morning. The White House has signaled its support for the deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised the passage of the relief package amid a “kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory.” And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., welcomed historic legislation meant to “match an historic” crisis. “It will be worth it,” Schumer said.
If approved by the U.S. House and signed into law by President Donald Trump, the measure would be the largest economic stimulus package enacted by the U.S. government.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that House Democrats were reviewing the bill. The legislation “does not go as far” as the relief package laid out by House Democrats, she said, but “the bill has moved a great deal closer to America’s workers” than Senate Republicans’ initial plan.
Hoyer said Wednesday that he expects the bill to pass by a voice vote, which would allow most lawmakers to stay in their districts due to limited flight options and stay-at-home orders in some states.
A significant piece of the Senate’s plan is a dramatic increase in unemployment insurance benefits. That would include about $600 per person per week in federal money, which would be in addition to what people get from states.
That portion of the bill became a sticking point in the negotiations. Some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that the unemployment benefits would disincentivize people from working. Graham called the provision “Bernie Sanders on steroids,” Business Insider reported.
Individuals would also receive direct checks of $1,200 per person for many adults and $500 for dependent children. The amounts would be less for those with higher incomes and could be sent out within the coming weeks, Toomey told reporters.
The package also includes nearly $380 billion to boost small businesses. Through that program, loans to cover payroll and other necessary business costs would be available to companies that employ up to 500 people. Those loans could ultimately be forgiven, Toomey said, “so what it really means is the federal government is paying the payroll for small businesses.”
The Senate bill also includes about $100 billion that would go directly to hospitals and other health care providers.
Another $500 billion would go toward a lending fund for industries, cities and states. Medium- to large-sized companies could receive a 50% tax credit toward their payroll.
States would receive $150 billion that would be allocated principally by population, Toomey said. State governments would have broad discretion on how to spend their share in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This bill, if enacted, would mark the third major coronavirus response package finalized in recent weeks as Washington has scrambled to buoy the health care system and provide economic relief. But it’s not expected to be the last legislation aimed at tackling the crisis.
McConnell said senators aren’t scheduled to reconvene until Monday, April 20. But he added that lawmakers would “stay nimble” if circumstances change.
Schumer said on the floor late Wednesday night, “None of us can know when this plague will pass.”