WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly passed a $484 billion spending package Thursday as the unemployment crisis deepened, a stark illustration of how policymakers continue trying to rescue an unraveling economy amid growing despair.
The legislation, approved 388-5, would restart a small-business loan program that was swamped by demand and allocate more money for health care providers and virus testing. The vote was historic, as many lawmakers wore masks on the House floor, some even speaking through face coverings as they delivered impassioned remarks.
Just hours earlier, the Labor Department announced that 4.4 million Americans sought unemployment benefits last week. More than 26 million people have filed jobless claims since the novel coronavirus knocked the U.S. economy off course last month, beginning an extraordinary economic tailspin.
The legislation now will go to President Donald Trump for enactment following Senate passage this week. Lawmakers from both parties already are talking about pursuing more large spending bills to try to contain the pandemic’s economic fallout. But the measure Thursday could be the last one for at least several weeks as divisions emerge between the parties about how much more to do. Congress is not scheduled to return to Washington until May 4 at the earliest.
Congress has now committed almost $3 trillion in emergency spending to battling the economic fallout from the coronavirus, but there are fresh signs that policymakers are becoming more wary of the public backlash that has begun over some of their decisions.
The Treasury Department on Thursday issued guidance making it much harder for publicly traded companies to qualify for money that was supposed to go to small businesses, threatening penalties in some cases if firms don’t repay money they had already received. And the Federal Reserve announced that it would be disclosing the names of companies that receive funding from some of its assistance programs after complaints that the central bank wasn’t being transparent about where the taxpayer aid was going.
The legislation that passed Thursday was negotiated between the Trump administration and congressional leaders after the small-business Paycheck Protection Program — created as part of Congress’ $2 trillion economic stimulus package — ran out of money last week and stopped processing loans. The new measure includes $310 billion to replenish this program, $60 billion for a separate small-business emergency loan and grant program, $75 billion for hospitals and health care providers, and $25 billion for a new coronavirus testing program.
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The Senate passed the bill Tuesday with just a few lawmakers present. The House vote proceeded much differently, as Republicans insisted on a roll-call vote. To ensure safety and social distancing, House members were separated alphabetically into eight groups with different time slots for each so they could maintain their distance as they entered on one side of the chamber and exited on the other. That caused what would normally be a 15-minute vote to take well over an hour.
In late March the House approved the $2 trillion Cares Act on a voice vote with a bare majority present. But despite the concerns expressed by many lawmakers about returning to Washington in the midst of a pandemic, the vast majority of House members were present Thursday, with only about 35 absent.
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