WASHINGTON — With the coronavirus death toll mounting and the country facing a recession or worse, the Senate on Wednesday night approved the largest economic relief package in US history, a $2 trillion infusion to steady the cratering economy.
The measure, which passed 96-0 and still needs approval by the House before going to President Trump, would send cash directly to Americans, shore up unemployment benefits, and buttress small businesses upended by the rapidly spreading virus.
“This is not a stimulus package, this is emergency relief,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, likening the moment to wartime. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package.”
That part was easier said than done.
As Wednesday wore on, it became increasingly clear that the historic measure, born out of a pandemic and intended to stave off an economic crisis, was not immune to partisan wrangling as its promised quick passage was imperiled by a swirl of last-minute drama.
By the early afternoon, with the final text of the bill still taking shape after a bipartisan deal by Senate leaders and the Trump administration, a group of Republicans threatened to hold it up. They said the expanded unemployment benefits were overly generous and would encourage workers to get laid off — an objection that immediately triggered a counterthreat from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who promised to place his own hold on the bill over his concerns about “corporate welfare” if they did not drop theirs.
A vote to amend the bill to cap the unemployment benefits failed Wednesday night.
Among other provisions, the bill includes direct checks of $1,200 for individuals who made less than $75,000 in 2018, or less than $150,000 for those filing jointly. An extra $500 would be included for each dependent child.
Trump told reporters Wednesday evening that the bill was “very close” to passing Congress and he planned to sign it immediately. “This is certainly in terms of dollars far and away the biggest [legislation] ever done,” he said.
The measure drew criticism from some liberal groups and Governor Andrew Cuomo of hard-hit New York, who said it was barely “a drop in the bucket.” But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the bill “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people."
The House will take up the bill on Friday morning and it is expected to pass by voice vote with members scattered around the country, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday night. And Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose said lawmakers were already thinking about putting together another stimulus package after this one.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said his party had won significant concessions from Republicans after a six-day frenzy of negotiations between lawmakers of both parties and White House emissaries like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ended in the largely empty Capitol at 1:30 Wednesday morning.
“Like all compromises, this bill is far from perfect,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Democrats on Wednesday. “But we believe the legislation has improved sufficiently to warrant its quick consideration and passage.”
Lawmakers were still finalizing the text of the bill Wednesday evening, but they said it contained $340 billion in emergency funding aimed at containing the outbreak, including $117 billion for hospitals and $11 billion for vaccines and diagnostics.
The bill also creates a $500 billion corporate bailout fund. Democrats pushed for more restrictions on that fund than in the original Senate proposal, including a ban on stock buybacks by companies that get federal help for the length of the aid plus an additional year, the creation of a watchdog with oversight over the fund, and a ban on companies controlled by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, or members of Congress from receiving aid.
Much of the funding in the massive bill was aimed at tightening the nation’s safety net by providing relief to businesses that have been forced to make huge job cuts in recent weeks, as well as cash assistance and enhanced unemployment benefits for Americans facing financial calamity.
That included a $260 billion expansion of unemployment benefits and a $377 billion small business rescue plan. Most of those funds would be used to guarantee loans that small businesses could use to keep their cash flow going — and thus keep employees on their payroll and make other necessary payments — while the economy sputters. Those loans would be forgiven for businesses that keep their employees on the payroll. Mnuchin said every federally insured bank would be authorized to make the loans, and that “by the end of next week" small businesses could apply and be approved on the same day.
“We spent more time thinking about the small businesses than the big,” Trump said.
An aide to Senator Marco Rubio, who is the chair of the Senate’s committee on small business and entrepreneurship, said those loans could be used, for example, by a restaurant owner to pay staff even though they have closed, and could be used to retroactively pay employees who have already been laid off.
Business owners in Massachusetts said that money couldn’t come soon enough.
“There’s an immediacy problem here that no one is solving,” said Jen Faigel, the chief executive of CommonWealth Kitchen, which is host to over 50 small food businesses, the majority of which are minority-owned.
Faigel said she’s been getting calls all week from business owners saying they can’t make payroll or pay bills. “What’s missing here is the urgency to get dollars into the hands of business owners and their employees now,” she said.
Schumer specifically praised the beefed-up $260 billion unemployment package, calling it “unemployment insurance on steroids” that would provide “a social safety net wide enough to catch the millions of American workers who became unemployed virtually overnight.” Democrats pushed for part-time, self-employed, and “gig economy” workers — who are traditionally excluded from collecting unemployment insurance — to access the expanded benefits, which would include an extra $600 per week for every worker for an additional 13 weeks.
But that became a major sticking point on Wednesday afternoon, when a group of Republican senators including Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, and Rick Scott said the extra money could mean people would earn more through unemployment insurance than they would at their regular jobs.
“I never in my wildest dream believed that we would incentivize people to stop working to take unemployment,” said Graham. He told reporters that a nurse’s aide making $15 an hour would not want to go back to work fighting the pandemic if they were laid off, given they could make $24 an hour on the new expanded unemployment benefits.
At a press conference Wednesday evening, Mnuchin said he and the president had spoken to the senators who were concerned, and stood by the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits as the most efficient way to boost benefits quickly.
“Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow,” Mnuchin said.
Mnuchin predicted eligible recipients would receive the $1,200 checks within three weeks if the IRS has direct deposit information on file. Outside experts warned it would likely take far longer for those who do not have direct deposit set up with the IRS, which includes many low income families.
As some progressives clamored for bigger direct payments, lawmakers left open the possibility that Congress would pass more direct aid in the future, if the crisis continues. Democrats said the historic boost to unemployment insurance, which is at the heart of the last-minute holdup by a handful of Republicans, is meant to work in tandem with direct checks.
“It’s not so much one figure set in stone, but it is installing a safety net for families, for small businesses that need it now,” Clark said.
Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.