WASHINGTON — An enormous economic stimulus bill released by the Senate GOP leadership came under attack from all sides Friday, March 20, as negotiations got underway with Democrats and Trump administration officials.
The trillion-dollar legislation, aimed at stemming the economic carnage caused by the coronavirus, would send direct payments to many Americans and extend large loans to airlines and other industries. It would also create a $300 billion relief program tasked with halting a wave of layoffs at small businesses.
But it would limit payments to poorer Americans and include few restrictions on some corporate bailout funds, infuriating some lawmakers who believe the bill's targets are misguided.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said as he opened a meeting with bipartisan negotiators Friday that he was aiming to reach an agreement by the end of the day - a stunning pace by which to move even the most perfunctory of legislation. That would allow him to begin action on the Senate floor Saturday and move the legislation to a final vote Monday, the timeline sought by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
But the widespread and bipartisan opposition raised questions about whether it could happen that quickly. And the legislation would still have to pass the House, which is not in session this week and would have to be called back to pass the bill.
Underscoring the urgency of the situation as the administration searches for every possible tool to respond, Mnuchin announced Friday that the nation's tax filing deadline would be pushed back from April 15 to July 15.
Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the stimulus legislation in the House and Senate, panned the bill unveiled by McConnell as overly weighted toward industry.
"We are beginning to review Senator McConnell's proposal and on first reading, it is not at all pro-worker and instead puts corporations way ahead of workers," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement.
A number of Republicans, as well as members of the Trump administration, voiced concerns about the structure of the direct payment plan, which would send smaller benefits to the poorest Americans who are the most economically vulnerable.
The frantic negotiations are taking place as the economic problems in the United States appear to be multiplying. JPMorgan Chase has estimated that the U.S. economy could shrink by 14 percent between April and June, the biggest contraction in the post-World War II era. Goldman Sachs has estimated that 2.25 million people filed for unemployment this week, a nearly tenfold increase from one week ago and the largest number ever recorded.
Things could only get worse. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered his state's 40 million residents to stay home except for essential activities during the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the economy - and America - is on lockdown.
The new Senate legislation would provide checks of $1,200 per adult for many families, as well as $500 for every child in those families. Families filing jointly would receive up to $2,400 for the adults. The size of the checks would diminish for those earning more than $75,000 and phase out completely for those earning more than $99,000. The poorest families, those with no federal income tax liability, would see smaller benefits, though the minimum would be set at $600.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity Friday to reveal internal thinking, said, "For us, the construct and scope is not what we had in mind, and we'll be talking with senators about the best way to deliver help quickly to Americans."
Mnuchin had spoken of a more generous direct payment plan, which would potentially send two sets of checks, instead of just one as the Senate plan envisions. Also, Mnuchin had not discussed an income cutoff that would leave the least-wealthy taxpayers receiving the smallest benefits.
Mnuchin and other top Trump administration officials were on Capitol Hill on Friday participating in the massive negotiations, which kicked off inside a cavernous Senate hearing room where Mnuchin was flanked by McConnell and Schumer. More than a dozen other senators of both parties - mostly members of leadership or heads of committees - were also participating.
"The secretary of the Treasury has indicated it's important for us to be on the Senate floor and to pass a measure Monday," McConnell told reporters after the meeting broke into a handful of subgroups to work on various aspects of the pending legislation.
Even before the negotiations began, a number of Senate Republicans criticized the proposal for direct payments. Among them was Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah) who earlier this week had proposed sending $1,000 checks to many Americans.
"Americans urgently need cash to meet immediate needs, that's been my goal from the start. The current bill has promise, but it shouldn't give lower earners smaller checks - that's directly contrary to my proposal," Romney said via Twitter late Thursday. "We need to fix this to ensure lower earners get equal payments."
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted: "Relief to families in this emergency shouldn't be regressive. Lower income families shouldn't be penalized."
Relief to families in this emergency shouldn’t be regressive. Lower-income families shouldn’t be penalized
Relief to families in this emergency shouldn’t be regressive. Lower-income families shouldn’t be penalized— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) March 19, 2020
Several other Senate Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of President Trump, questioned whether direct cash payments was the right approach at all. Graham said boosting unemployment benefits and small business relief was a better way to go than one-time payments.
Trump himself has already changed course, initially pushing for a broad payroll tax cut before shifting to backing direct payments because those could go out more rapidly - in a matter of weeks, according to Mnuchin.
Conservative tax experts also pointed to the limitations of the plan. About 64 million filers earning under $50,000 a year would not receive the full $1,200 rebate check, said Kyle Pomerleau, a tax expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
The small-business section, drafted by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offers loans to small businesses with under 500 employees. The $300 billion for the loans would be made available through lenders certified by the Small Business Administration, such as banks and credit unions, with the maximum loan capped at $10 million. The portion of the loan used by the small businesses to cover their payrolls could be forgiven if firms retain their employees through the end of June 30. Loans given to firms with tipped employees, such as bars and restaurants, could be forgiven if they are used to provide additional wages to their employees.
The bill also outlines in greater detail the terms for receiving targeted federal help from the federal government, as proposed earlier by the Trump administration. The legislation includes $50 billion in "loans and loan guarantees" for passenger airlines; $8 billion for "cargo air carriers"; and $150 billion for other "eligible businesses," a category administration officials have suggested could include the hotel and cruise industries. The legislation appears to give the Treasury Department wide authority in determining which businesses qualify for this $150 billion fund.
For large firms receiving emergency federal aid, the legislation would put in new restrictions on pay increases for executives and employees earning over $425,000 a year.
Organized labor leaders slammed the legislation.
"The Senate GOP package is an utter disgrace," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said via Twitter. "It gives free money to corporations, ignores the health crisis and does nothing to keep people working or help the unemployed. The labor movement will oppose this Main St bailout of Wall St with everything we have."
The debate over the legislation comes as the impacts of the coronavirus on the U.S. economy and American life cascaded at nearly unimaginable speed.
Confirmed cases of covid-19 in the United States have spiked over 14,000. The stock market has plummeted amid widespread layoffs, and schools, businesses and restaurants across the nation have shut their doors.
The structure of the direct payments in the legislation reflects the traditional Republican approach to tax credits, in which Americans paying no or little in federal taxes often see diminished benefits. The tax credit for children passed in Republicans' 2017 tax law similarly included smaller subsidies for those at the very bottom of the income distribution compared with those in the middle class. Republicans tend to defend these policies by arguing it would be unfair to award taxpayers with tax cuts greater than what they are paying in federal taxes and could hurt their incentive to work and make more money.
A number of lawmakers believe the bill, even if it authorizes more than $1 trillion in emergency spending, will not be enough to stabilize the economy, and they are already discussing follow-up legislation that could be even broader.
This article was written by Jeff Stein, Erica Werner, and Paul Kane, reporters for The Washington Post.
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