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Partisan fight over new coronavirus relief could threaten the economy further

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi exited the House chamber of the US Capitol Friday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi exited the House chamber of the US Capitol Friday.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Friday night approved a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, advancing the measure after days of wrangling and over the objections of the party’s conservative and liberal members alike.

The legislation passed 208-199, with only one Republican supporting it. Fourteen Democrats voted against it.

But passing the House bill was the easy part.

Even as the virus’s death toll and economic damage rise, opposition to trillions of dollars in new spending is swiftly hardening on the political right. That makes the House Democrats’ bill all but dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate and marks an end to the short-lived era of quick, bipartisan compromise on massive federal spending to shore up the economy and fight the pandemic.

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“The easy agreements are over,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who also advised Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s going to be harder now.”

Economists across the political spectrum are worried that the political gridlock at a critical time could have grave consequences for an economy that is still in free fall.

“What’s at stake for the economy is people and businesses not being able to pay their bills, which results in businesses shutting down and jobs disappearing forever,” said Brian Riedl of the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute, a self-described deficit hawk who nevertheless called for extending unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped cities and states.

In March and April, Democrats and Republicans came together fairly quickly to pass four relief bills totaling about $3 trillion to respond to the crisis, and even deeply conservative groups like the Club for Growth stayed neutral on the biggest of those measures.

“You see a very different sentiment now,” said David McIntosh, the group’s president.

The Democrats’ new bill is a sprawling, 1,800-page measure that includes $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments, something that Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland have been pushing as have Democratic governors.

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The legislation would also send a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks directly to many Americans, allocate billions of dollars to the struggling postal service, and provide money for food assistance and for rental assistance.

When the bill was released this week, Republicans immediately derided it as a Democratic wish list. They seized on the number of times it contains the word “cannabis” (68) — including for provisions that would help marijuana businesses with access to banking and to study diversity in the industry — and assailing a provision that extends direct cash relief to undocumented immigrants who pay taxes.

But Republican leaders have also exhibited a general reticence about additional spending and an inclination to take more time before putting their own measure together. Last week, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that formal negotiations on the next round of relief won’t begin until the end of the month at the earliest. Senate Republicans say they are more interested in passing legislation to shield businesses that reopen from liability.

“We’ve added about $3 trillion to the national debt, and [are] assessing the effectiveness of that before deciding to go forward,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday. He also told reporters this week that he did not “think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately.”

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Democrats immediately seized on those comments.

“The need for swift action for the American people has not come to an end,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, who is a member of House Democratic leadership.

The coronavirus has unleashed intense partisanship around the country, especially in recent weeks, as President Trump urges states to lift economic restrictions. The spending impasse is the latest example of lawmakers digging in.

As lawmakers debated the bill on Friday, some Republicans chatted on the House floor without wearing masks — and at one point, Representative Ted Yoho of Florida told reporters there was “no need” to wear one.

But the disagreement over spending is also tied to the a partisan split over whether the nation should keep the economy shuttered as it fights the virus, or open it back up, as many states are starting to do.

“There is not the bipartisan consensus to shut down for an additional three months and thus reimburse all the victims of the shutdown,” Riedl said.

Representative Daniel Meuser of Pennsylvania said the data showed “we can now begin a safe, soft reopening of our economy,” and Representative Michael Guest of Mississippi said the Democrats’ bill would discourage people from returning to work.

But Democrats said Republicans are downplaying the seriousness of the nation’s continued crisis.

“I feel like we’re in the twilight zone,” said Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “Unemployment is the highest level since the Great Depression. This is a big challenge that we’re faced with and requires a big response.”

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Democrats themselves were at odds with the bill, too. Democrats in swing districts, like Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, said they plan to oppose it, while progressives complained it didn’t go far enough.

“I will say that the progressives have been pushing very hard on making sure we have some health care expansion, making sure we have a wage guarantee for workers, making sure we have affordable housing,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California. “We’re not meeting the moment in terms of the boldness of leadership.”

Economists said that, for the time being, the biggest danger lies in not acting soon enough. Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell suggested Congress would need to appropriate more money for relief.

“Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” Powell said.

And liberal economists say the situation is getting more dire by the day.

“You’ve got a lot of people for whom their first round of stimulus checks is running out. They’ve still had trouble accessing the unemployment system. They’re facing stress on their rent and on their food. They need help yesterday,” said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“The longer Congress dithers,” he added, “the more longer term damage will be done to the economy’s long term growth rate.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.