WASHINGTON – The US Senate is ready on Wednesday to approve the largest fiscal stimulus package in the country’s modern history to try and counteract the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which could push the economy into a recession.
Despite the emergency situation and having announced an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday morning, lawmakers throughout the day continued discussing the elements of the $2 trillion legislation, known as the CARES Act (short for “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act”).
The stimulus package is equivalent to about 10 percent of the US gross domestic product.
“Our nation needed us to go big, and go fast,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in comments on the Senate floor on Wednesday, calling it “a wartime level of investment in our nation” and predicting that senators would approve the bill later in the day although its final text has not yet been made available.
Conservatives have a 53-47 majority in the Senate and, to be approved, the package must obtain at least 60 votes.
In an unusual show of agreement with McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed his support for the bill.
“To the American people, we say: Big help, quick help, is on the way,” Schumer told CNN on Wednesday.
Although some details remain to be ironed out, the bill includes $1,200 in one-time direct payments to Americans earning less than $75,000 per year plus $500 per child age 17 or younger; provides more than $360 billion in loans to small businesses; and sets up a $500 billion fund for loans to industries, cities and states.
The measure also includes $250 billion to expand unemployment insurance benefits for people who lose their jobs, $150 billion for state and local authorities and another $100 billion to strengthen the nation’s healthcare system, which in hot-spots of the epidemic, such as New York City, is beginning to be overwhelmed.
One of the main bones of contention in the bill was who would administer the distribution of $500 billion in loans to businesses hard-hit by the epidemic – including airlines, the hotel industry and cruise lines – with the White House and GOP lawmakers wanting these funds administered exclusively by the Treasury Department with little, if any, outside oversight.
Democratic lawmakers refused to agree to this and ultimately the funds will be supervised by an independent inspector and will include conditions such as prohibiting the money from being used for executive salaries or stock buybacks.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was heading the talks for the White House, said that President Donald Trump intends to sign the bill as soon as it is sent to the Oval Office, although the measure would first go to the House of Representatives for approval if it passes in the Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who presides over the Democratic majority in the lower house, has given the green light to the bill, although she is studying its elements and said that the chamber probably will not vote on it until Thursday.
The $2 trillion stimulus package is almost three times the $700 billion package implemented during the 2008 financial crisis.
The World Health Organization warned earlier this week that the spread of the coronavirus in the US has accelerated in recent days, with the country now having the third largest number of infected people, after China and Italy.
According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 54,000 people are known to have been infected in the US and 775 have died, although The John Hopkins University has put those totals at 61,167 infected and 869 deaths.