Pandemic spurs U.S. Senate to pass historic aid package

$2 trillion bill includes direct cash payments, dramatic increase in unemployment benefits

big bill
"It’s quite simply the greatest single investment in our economy and health care system in modern American history," Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said on the Senate floor Wednesday night. (Senate office screenshot)

The U.S. Senate late Wednesday night approved a $2 trillion spending bill that aims to provide economic relief for workers and businesses and to aid hospitals and states reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nevada’s workers, families, and small businesses will receive relief in the form of small business loans and emergency grants, four months of additional unemployment insurance, and direct financial support to help families get back on their feet,” Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen said in a joint statement.

“In addition, this package includes funding, financing, and tax relief to help Nevada’s travel and tourism industry, so that Nevadans can get back to work,” the senators said.

The chamber voted 96-0 to pass the bill in an unusual display of bipartisanship. Four Republican senators missed the vote because they were quarantining or ill.

The bill could become law as soon as this week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) alerted his colleagues late Wednesday night that the House plans to consider the measure on Friday morning. The White House has signaled its support for the deal.

Hoyer said Wednesday that he expects the bill to pass by a voice vote, which would allow most lawmakers to stay in their districts due to limited flight options and stay-at-home orders in some states.

If approved by the U.S. House and signed into law by President Donald Trump, the measure would be the largest economic stimulus package enacted by the U.S. government.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday night, Cortez Masto described the legislation as “quite simply the greatest single investment in our economy and health care system in modern American history.”

Unemployment checks

A significant piece of the Senate’s plan is a dramatic increase in unemployment insurance benefits. That would include about $600 per person per week in federal money, which would be in addition to what people get from states.

That portion of the bill became a sticking point in the negotiations. Some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that the unemployment benefits would disincentivize people from working. Graham called the provision “Bernie Sanders on steroids,” Business Insider reported.

The unemployment provision provides an additional 13 weeks of compensation for people who have exhausted state unemployment benefits.

Additionally, the bill extends unemployment payments to workers who traditionally have not been covered by unemployment insurance programs, including self-employed workers, gig workers, independent contractors, and part-time workers.

“Whether you’re a dish washer at a hotel on the Strip or hair stylist in Carson City, you’ll be eligible for up to four months of unemployment benefits and an additional $600 a week,” Cortez Masto said during her floor remarks.

It is not clear, however, how benefits will be calculated for workers who have traditionally been ineligible for unemployment benefits. “It will be harder [to calculate] because these workers don’t have a W-2 or an average weekly wage,” former former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Labor Seth Harris told Forbes this week.

Direct checks for everyone

Individuals would also receive direct checks of $1,200 per person for many adults and $500 for dependent children.

“The rebate amount starts phasing out at $75,000 annual income for a single filer and $150,000 annual income for joint filers. Filers under this amount will receive the full rebate,” according to a Democratic Senate backgrounder on the legislation. “All claimants must have a valid SSN, except for spouses of active military. If a claimant filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019, or receives Social Security benefits, they will receive the rebate automatically.”

Small business assistance

The package also includes $350 billion in loans for small business to cover payroll and other necessary business costs. Those loans would be available to companies that employ up to 500 people, and could ultimately be forgiven, “so what it really means is the federal government is paying the payroll for small businesses,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA.

The small business provisions of the bill also include $10 billion for Small Business Administration emergency grants of up to $10,000 “to provide immediate relief for small business operating costs,” according to the Senate backgrounder. Additionally, the legislation includes $17 billion “for SBA to cover 6 months of payments for small businesses with existing SBA loans.”

Big business assistance

Another $500 billion would go toward a lending fund for industries, cities and states. Medium- to large-sized companies could also receive a 50 percent tax credit toward their payroll.

The resort and gambling industry, which has been lobbying hard for federal financial assistance, applauded the legislation.

“With almost all of the country’s commercial and tribal gaming facilities closed, an estimated 650,000 direct gaming employees are idled,” the American Gaming Association said in a release. “If the industry remains shut down for two months, it will jeopardize the livelihoods of those individuals as well as the 17,000 gaming supplier jobs and 350,000 American small business workers supported by the gaming industry. In total, shutting gaming down for two months will cost the American economy $43.5 billion in lost economic activity, underscoring the need for swift action.”

Under the $500 billion loan program for industry, loan recipients would be prohibited from stock buybacks or paying dividends until one year after the length of the loan.

Among other elements designed to help the tourism industry, the bill grants $10 billion to airports.

States, tribes, hospitals, schools

States and tribal governments would receive $150 billion that would be allocated principally by population. States and tribes would have broad discretion on how to spend their share in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian Health Service would be allocated an addition billion dollars.

The Senate bill also includes about $100 billion that would go directly to hospitals and other health care providers, and $16 billion to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile of personal protective equipment, drugs and other medical supplies.

The legislation allocates $30.75 billion in emergency grants for schools and colleges, and suspends all federal student loan payments through Sept. 30, 2020, without racking up interest, and

This bill, if enacted, would mark the third major coronavirus response package finalized in recent weeks as Washington has scrambled to buoy the health care system and provide economic relief. But it’s not expected to be the last legislation aimed at tackling the crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said senators aren’t scheduled to reconvene until Monday, April 20. But he added that lawmakers would “stay nimble” if circumstances change.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said on the floor late Wednesday night, “None of us can know when this plague will pass.”

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.
Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.