House Democrats on Friday approved a mammoth $3 trillion relief package designed to alleviate the health and economic fallout of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, seeking to add pressure on Senate Republicans to act on a new round of emergency aid.
The 208-199 vote was largely on party lines, with a mix of progressive and centrist Democrats breaking away from party leaders in opposition, and a sole Republican — Rep. Peter King of New York — defecting from the GOP to vote “yes.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) characterized the legislation, crafted by Democrats without consulting Republicans, as their opening salvo in talks with the GOP-controlled Senate and White House.
“We’re putting our offer on the table. We’re open to negotiation,” Pelosi said.
Senate Republicans have signaled little urgency in moving quickly, though they also came under some pressure from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell who in a speech this week said more action from Congress would be needed to help an economy hemorrhaging jobs.
“I think we all believe that another bill probably is going to be necessary,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News on Thursday night. “But I’m not prepared today to put a precise date on when that will be.”
Democrats have gone on the attack against McConnell, arguing he is wrong to say urgent action isn’t needed amid a crisis that has led to 86,000 deaths and 36 million people newly unemployed.
“I don’t understand how McConnell can justify wait-and-see, not feeling a sense of urgency when we’ve got 80,000-plus Americans dead, 30 million-plus unemployed,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who represents a hard-hit district west of New York City, told The Hill. “He does not have to agree with everything in our bill — I never expected him to do that. But if there are parts he doesn’t like, tell us what those are, sit down, negotiate and let’s find common ground.”
Republicans have hammered the bill’s costs and argued a more careful approach is merited given the expenses already incurred by the government.
“States are beginning to open up. We just passed $3 trillion already in a bipartisan manner that continues to have to be implemented,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol before the vote.
The Democrats’ new proposal includes hundreds of billions of dollars for medical equipment and coronavirus testing, a new round of direct cash payments for individuals and families and an expansion of unemployment insurance benefits.
It also includes a host of favored liberal provisions which have come under attack by Republicans and have little chance of surviving the coming negotiations. That list includes funding to expand nutrition programs, boost the U.S. Postal Service, subsidize rent and mortgage payments, and help cover student-loan costs.
A third of the bill — almost $1 trillion — would go to state and local governments to shore up coffers battered by emergency spending and a loss of tax revenue. Those funds are necessary, supporters argue, to preserve the jobs of the front-line workers — police officers, transit workers, 911 operators and medical personnel — fighting to contain the public health threat.
Democrats named their bill the HEROES Act to honor those workers.
“Many of them have risked their lives to save lives, and now they may lose their jobs,” Pelosi said on the floor.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said the city of Everett, Wash., where he lives, has so far spared police and firefighter jobs but just slashed $10 million out of its current budget due to COVID-19-related shortfalls. The rising unemployment rate and local budget cuts will force Republicans back to the negotiating table in the coming weeks, he predicted.
“That’s $10 million out of a budget that is only seven months along, and that doesn’t include the cuts they will need to make for 2021,” Larsen said of the cuts in Everett. “That is a city of 110,000 people. It’s not big but there are a lot of mid-size cities like that that will have to start cutting basic services.”
Republicans who represent small- to mid-size cities are mostly united behind the approach of McConnell and President Trump. Before throwing more cash at the problem, these Republicans want to see how the economy responds as businesses begin to open back up. The GOP critics are also concerned that any new help for states will simply bail out governors for budget problems — largely derived from pension promises for state employees — that existed before the health crisis arrived.
But they also acknowledge that something will need to be done down the road to aid these cash-strapped cities and counties, particularly the smaller ones that were left out of earlier relief packages.
“I worry about my municipalities. I worry about some of those jurisdictions that have populations less than 500,000. I have a number of those, and I want to make sure that police and firefighters are taken care of,” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who represents the suburbs outside of St. Louis, told The Hill on Friday.
However, Wagner, who chairs the GOP’s Suburban Caucus, said any future state-and-local aid package would need to be narrowly tailored: “I’m not interested in bailing out poorly run pension plans and poorly run budgets by certain states. That’s not something I think the American taxpayer is interested in funding.”
When Congress will revisit a new coronavirus relief package is an open question. But the House chamber may be much more empty when it does.
Democrats on Friday also approved new House guidelines empowering lawmakers to vote remotely, through colleagues present on the floor, for the duration of pandemic. It marks the first time in the nation’s history that remote voting will be allowed.