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Senate aims to vote Wednesday on $2 trillion coronavirus bill after landmark agreement with White House

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor Wednesday.ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The Senate is aiming to vote Wednesday on a $2 trillion stimulus package that is designed to flood the U.S. economy with money in an effort to stabilize households and businesses that have been floored by the coronavirus outbreak.

But Senate leaders were still working to avoid a number of last-minute snags. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, demanded changes to help his state deal with a flood of new cases. Three Republican senators said a provision in the bill needed to be fixed immediately or it would incentivize people not to return to work. And House Democrats wouldn't provide a firm timeline of when they would vote to pass the bill.

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The late-stage drama was just the latest twist for the massive spending bill, which had snowballed from President Donald Trump's push for a eight-month payroll tax cut into the largest emergency relief package in American history. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the breakthrough on the Senate floor around 1:30 a.m., after a long day of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials.

Senate aides were still scrambling to write the legislation on Wednesday afternoon, and House Democrats were expected to take it up no sooner than Thursday. Despite a brief burst of optimism about the landmark deal, it was unclear how swiftly they would be able to address some of the issues that arose on Wednesday.

"Today, the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm. Nobody thinks legislation can end this. We cannot outlaw this virus," McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday, adding: "This is not even a stimulus package. It is emergency relief."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave an upbeat assessment of the bill early Wednesday, but the logistics of the legislation's passage through the House remained unclear. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said House members needed to see final Senate text and would have 24 hours notice before any vote, ensuring that it could not happen before Thursday.

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Cuomo on Wednesday demanded changes, though it's unclear how amenable lawmakers might be to any final adjustments.

Nearly half of the country's 55,000 cases are in New York, and the health care system around New York City is completely overwhelmed. Cuomo said the bill would be "terrible" for his state and added that "We need the House to make adjustments."

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised major concerns of their own on Wednesday. They claimed a "drafting error" in the bill would create incentives for companies to lay off workers instead of retain them on the payroll, citing a problem with the way unemployment benefits were changed. But it's unclear whether Senate leaders would make the change, as many saw it as a compromise to win Democratic support.

"We must sadly oppose the fast-tracking of this bill until this text is addressed, or the Department of Labor issues regulatory guidance that no American would earn more by not working than by working," they said in a joint statement.

The Senate bill, unprecedented in its size and scope, would send $1,200 checks to many Americans, create a $367 billion loan program for small businesses, and establish a $500 billion lending fund for industries, cities and states. Lawmakers and the White House were bombarded with lobbyists and special interest groups seeking assistance in the package, and the legislation more than doubled in size in its final days.

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The legislation ensures that these taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms controlled by President Trump, other White House officials or members of Congress. This would suggest that Trump-owned properties, including hotels that have been impacted, cannot seek taxpayer assistance.

Assistance to the hard-hit airline industry would come through multiple provisions. They would qualify for $25 billion in loans or guarantees, but they would also have access to a $25 billion fund that the treasury secretary would have latitude to extend through mechanisms like taking equity positions in the companies, according to Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., who worked late into the night Tuesday finalizing the language with Senate leaders.

Toomey said he would have preferred long-term low-interest loans to airlines, "But we had this argument, we had this discussion, and it turned out the way it did," Toomey said, making clear he intended to support the legislation as written.

Cargo airlines and suppliers would qualify for a different batch of money.

Other provisions include $150 billion for state and local emergency aid and $130 billion for hospitals.

It would significantly boost unemployment insurance benefits, expanding eligibility and offering workers an additional $600 a week for four months, on top of what state unemployment programs pay. Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks, flooding a system that isn't designed to cope with a sudden wave of applicants.

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After falling 10,000 points in two months, the Dow Jones industrial average regained nearly 3,000 points on Tuesday and Wednesday amid optimism about the $2 trillion recovery package. But even if passed, it's unclear what precise impact the legislation will have on the economy. Many businesses have been hammered by the economic impact of the virus.

In addition to mass layoffs, many other Americans are facing pay cuts or furloughs as their employers try to adjust to a sudden decrease in business. The prolonged impact could be different in various parts of the country, as Trump has signaled he wants some parts of the economy to reopen very quickly but some of the country's biggest economic engines - such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco - are seeing problems deteriorate.

As the bill was coming together in the final days, Democrats fought to make numerous changes. For example, the White House and Republicans agreed to allow an oversight board and create a Treasury Department special inspector general for pandemic recovery to scrutinize the lending decisions and detect abusive or fraudulent behavior.

"Every loan document will be public and made available to Congress very quickly, so we can see where the money is going, what the terms are and if it's fair to the American people," Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

After Senate passage, the next step is a little less clear. The House is out of session, so action there could take longer, depending on whether lawmakers can agree to pass the bill by "unanimous consent," which would require agreement from all members of the chamber.

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But some liberals and conservatives have already hinted they could oppose it.

Tuesday began with all parties predicting a deal would be imminent, along with a vote by Tuesday evening. But as the hours dragged on, multiple disputes arose and legislative language required close review.

Finally, as midnight neared Tuesday, the pace of shuttle diplomacy picked up on the second floor of the Capitol, as Mnuchin, White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland and the newly named White House chief of staff, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., met alternately with McConnell and Schumer, who was in frequent contact with Pelosi.

"You know, I wouldn't say there were any thorny, any particular thorny issues. This is a very complicated piece of legislation. It's a very large investment in the U.S. economy," Mnuchin told reporters after the deal was struck. "And people worked tirelessly around the clock going through the documents. So, again, couldn't be more pleased."

Mnuchin said Trump would "absolutely, absolutely, absolutely" sign the bill.

The package would extend extraordinary taxpayer assistance to potentially millions of companies that have been hammered by the fast-moving economic crisis. The bill is being rushed through Congress without public hearings or formal review, and it's unclear how effective the measures would be in arresting the economy's sudden fall. But lawmakers said they had little choice but to try.

"This is not a moment of celebration but one of necessity," Schumer said.

Democratic aides said they were optimistic that a strong bipartisan Senate vote would make it possible to pass the bill by unanimous consent in the House - a process requiring only two members present in the House chamber. But that would require every lawmaker to agree - a tall order for a $2 trillion bill touching every part of the U.S. economy.

There was reluctance among lawmakers in both parties to commit to approving a still-unseen bill. Besides potential policy objections inherent in a $2 trillion bill, members might also resist passing a bill of that magnitude without a formal vote, the aides said - thus requiring most lawmakers to return to Washington.

If unanimous consent is not possible, aides of both parties said the most likely scenario would be a day-long vote where members would be encouraged to spread out their trips to the floor and not congregate as the vote is taken.

"We need this to get working for the American people," Mnuchin said. "And again, there are a lot of compromises. It's a terrific bill. And it was a great accomplishment for everyone."

At least two House members and one senator have tested positive for the coronavirus, while others remained quarantined, and multiple lawmakers have voiced trepidation about returning to the Capitol.

Congress has already passed two much smaller coronavirus relief bills: an $8.3 billion emergency supplemental for the health-care system and a $100-billion-plus bill to boost paid sick leave and unemployment insurance and provide free coronavirus testing.