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By Joshua Jamerson, Andrew Duehren and Natalie Andrews
WASHINGTON -- Congressional efforts to quickly pass an estimated $2 trillion stimulus package hit snags Wednesday, hours after legislative leaders and the Trump administration struck a deal aimed at combating the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate had been set to vote on the mammoth bill on Wednesday but rank-and-file members voiced objections while lawmakers were finalizing the bill's full text, slowing the process.
By late afternoon it wasn't clear when the Senate would vote on legislation that would provide direct financial checks to many Americans, drastically expand unemployment insurance, offer hundreds of billions in loans to both small and large businesses, refill drained state coffers and extend additional resources to health-care providers.
"A fight has arrived on our shores," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) on the Senate floor. "We did not seek it. We did not want it. But now, we are going to win it."
But as Senate leaders rushed to move the bill through the chamber swiftly on Wednesday, protests from Republican lawmakers over the unemployment provisions in the bill threatened to draw out the process further. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, said he would slow down the bill if the group of Republicans did not withdraw their threat, creating a high-stakes standoff in the final stages of the negotiations.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Wednesday that she is optimistic about the legislation, and said no decision had been made about when the House would try to take up the legislation if it clears the Senate as expected.
The House is expected then to attempt quickly to pass the bill by unanimous consent, a procedure that enables the chamber to approve the legislation without lawmakers being present to vote. An objection from even a single member could slow the process. House lawmakers are currently on recess and scattered across the country.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has led negotiations on behalf of the White House, said he had spoken to President Trump about the agreement and that Mr. Trump would absolutely sign it as it is currently written.
The legislation will provide one-time checks of $1,200 to Americans with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples. Individuals and couples are eligible for an additional $500 per child. The government rebates will be pared by $5 for each $100 of income over those thresholds, completely phasing out for individuals whose incomes exceed $99,000, $146,500 for head of households with one child and $198,000 for joint filers who don't have children.
Eligible U.S. residents must have a work-eligible social security number to receive such a check and must not be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer, according to Senate documents. Unlike an earlier proposal crafted by Senate Republicans, the payments won't be set at a lower level for some low-income Americans.
The checks will be available to those who have no income as well as people who rely on income benefit programs, such as supplemental security income from the Social Security Administration.
Those payments would be in addition to a broad expansion in unemployment benefits, which would be extended to nontraditional employees, including gig workers and freelancers. The agreement is set to increase current unemployment assistance by $600 a week for four months.
As congressional officials completed the final text of the agreement, a group of Senate Republicans said they would block fast-tracking the legislation unless what they termed a "massive drafting error" was fixed in the unemployment portion of the bill, because the $600 extra weekly payment could result in people getting more money while out of work than they did in their jobs.
"This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). "If this is not a drafting error, then this is the worst idea I've seen."
Taylor Foy, a GOP spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee, said it was not an error, and that the $600 across-the-board increase was done because every state has a different unemployment program and creating a program for each state would take too much time.
The Senate is also poised to approve $350 billion in loans to small businesses in an effort to keep Americans on payrolls as economic activity across the country comes to a standstill. Under the new program, loan money that small businesses use to cover payroll expenses, rent, interest on mortgage obligations and utilities will be forgiven. The legislation would also provide billions in debt relief on existing loans.
A major challenge in the negotiations was $500 billion in corporate aid, much of which will go toward backstopping Federal Reserve loans. The Treasury secretary will have the authority to directly lend a slice of those funds, and Democrats had sought to place controls on the money. The agreement will create a new inspector general and oversight board to monitor the aid.
The corporate aid portion also includes $17 billion for assistance to companies deemed to be crucial to national security, which could include firms such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co.
"You can imagine there's an awful lot of companies that can qualify for that," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said about that national-security fund, adding it should not be thought of as specifically for Boeing. A draft of the bill text doesn't name any specific companies.
Boeing has been seeking at least $60 billion in public and private aid for itself, its suppliers and the broader aerospace industry.
The legislation will also create a new grant program to send $100 billion to health-care providers, already straining to respond to the rising number of infections across the country. An additional $16 billion will go toward building a stockpile of medical equipment, including personal protective gear that has become scarce.
Expanded telehealth, higher Medicare reimbursement for doctors and hospitals, and a delay in certain Medicaid cuts to hospitals are part of the coronavirus package focused on health-care needs during the crisis.
The package would ensure states can get a 6.2% increase in matching federal funds for Medicaid and delay scheduled reductions to hospitals that care for a large share of uninsured or low-income patients. Payments hospitals get for treating patients infected with the virus would also be increased by 20%.
Democrats said that the bill includes $150 billion to go directly to state and local governments saddled with costs related to the virus.
In a heated call with House lawmakers from his home state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state would get only $4 billion in direct aid as part of a package giving $150 billion to states, according to a person familiar with the call. He argued that state funding should be higher and that a separate pool of money in addition to direct state aid should be available for cities, given that deaths in New York City alone account for about a quarter of the country's total. Under the bill, any money sought by an individual city would reduce the amount available to the rest of the state.
Mr. Cuomo said in his daily briefing: "$3.8 billion sounds like a lot of money...but we're looking at a revenue shortfall of $9, $10, $15 billion" in the state's budget, on top of emergency response costs of $1 billion so far.
Democrats also secured a provision in the agreement that bans businesses controlled by Mr. Trump, the vice president, members of Congress and heads of executive departments from receiving loans or other funds from the stimulus bill. Children and spouses of those people are also banned, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Once the bill passes the Senate, as expected, it will then go to the House, where Mrs. Pelosi has said that she wants to pass without having to recall members back to Washington from their districts for a floor vote.
Richard Rubin, Siobhan Hughes and Stephanie Armour contributed to this article.
Write to Joshua Jamerson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Andrew Duehren at email@example.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 25, 2020 18:01 ET (22:01 GMT)
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