WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders raced to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday and win passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history, and both parties’ leaders are desperate for quick passage as the virus takes lives and jobs by the hour. The Senate stayed in session Wednesday evening in anticipation of passing the bill after days of delays.
Insistently optimistic, President Trump said of the greatest public health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over. But he also implored Congress to approve the aid without further delay.
The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that has killed more than 21,000 people worldwide.
Asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”
The bill finances a response with a sum that is equal to about half the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget, a measure of the severity of the crisis. But as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sought to drive the bill swiftly through the Senate, progress stalled as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes, saying the legislation as written “incentivizes layoffs” and should be altered to ensure that employees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.
Complicating the standoff, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has flagged, said he would block the bill unless the conservatives dropped their objections.
“This is most certainly not the bill that I or any other progressive would have written,” Sanders told The Associated Press. But, he added, he supports it in the main, given the severity of the crisis.
Other objections came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene during the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the virus than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”
Once the Senate does pass the bill, final congressional approval will be up to the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has supported the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”
House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.