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Deepening Coronavirus Crisis Pushes Congress to Plan More Economic Aid

Congress moved fast. The coronavirus crisis moved faster.

After quickly passing a $2.2 trillion aid package designed to tide over American households and businesses until the worst of the pandemic had passed, Republicans and Democrats were hoping to start working on a stimulus package to rebuild the economy, potentially including long-sought infrastructure spending and tax cuts.

Instead, less than two weeks since President Trump signed the bill, lawmakers find themselves racing to shore up the relief measures already in law, rather than formulating new ones.

“I don’t think anyone two weeks ago imagined that we would need to move so quickly to augment” the last package, said Rep. Jared Huffman (D., Calif.). “Everyone assumed we would be moving on to the broader economic package, including infrastructure. But this crisis is just a lot more acute than we previously imagined.”

The shift in legislative targets underscores the challenge Congress has faced trying to keep up with the twin public health and economic crises, which have only continued to deepen as the number of people in the U.S. who have tested positive for the virus nears 400,000 and stay-at-home orders have crippled businesses nationwide.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday he wants the Senate to approve additional assistance for small businesses this week in response to the Trump administration’s request for $251 billion more for the program, aimed to keep workers on payrolls. That set a rapid timeline that will require an agreement with Senate Democrats. Mr. McConnell had previously cautioned against taking any immediate additional legislative action, calling on lawmakers to wait and see how the bill, dubbed the CARES Act, turned out.

“Even as the CARES Act continues to come online, one such need is already clear: The small-business Paycheck Protection Program needs more funding,” Mr. McConnell said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Wednesday that assistance to small businesses must also include an additional $100 billion for health care providers, $150 billion for state and local governments, and increased food assistance benefits. The top Democrats on Capitol Hill said that a bill this week must still be followed by an additional round of relief legislation dubbed CARES 2.

“After we pass this interim emergency legislation, Congress will move to pass a CARES 2 Act that will extend and expand the bipartisan CARES Act to meet the needs of the American people,” the two wrote.

Mr. McConnell said he wanted to hold a Senate vote this week on expanded small business aid and then send it to the House, but the parties’ differing stances could muddle the timing for passage. Also, both chambers need to keep lawmakers in line, as they are aiming to pass the legislation without requiring in-person roll call votes, as Congress is currently in recess.

Last week, Mrs. Pelosi had held a number of conference calls with House Democrats looking at various new initiatives, including infrastructure and housing assistance, for the next bill. Mr. Trump had also lent his support to tackling a major infrastructure package as part of the next set of legislation.

But House Democrats are now juggling two bills both aimed at bolstering elements of the last package. Mrs. Pelosi told House Democrats on Monday that a CARES 2 bill could run to more than $1 trillion and would provide an additional round of direct payments, further bolster unemployment benefits, and assist first responders.

For a Congress divided between a Democratic-controlled House and GOP-led Senate, the legislative response has been unusually quick. The $2.2 trillion package was the third in a series of bills aimed at responding to the coronavirus crisis Congress passed in March alone, each several times as large as the last. The first was an $8.3 billion bill that funded efforts to find a vaccine to the new disease, and the second provided more than $100 billion in further relief efforts, including expanding paid leave.

For a disease that has forced a large part of the U.S. economy to shut down, that pace hasn’t been fast enough. Former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen warned House Democrats on Monday that initial weekly unemployment claims, which totaled a record-shattering 10 million in the past two readings, will only continue to grow.

“The circumstances are just overtaking us here in terms of the depth and scope of the economic fallout of this public health crisis,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), who has been pushing a plan to restore workers’ paychecks by having the government cover 80% of employers’ payroll costs at all firms affected by the crisis, up to median wages, and provide incentives for rehiring workers laid off last month.

House Democrats have been eyeing releasing a CARES 2 bill next week, according to people familiar with the efforts, and voting on it after April 20. The current small business program is aimed at helping firms cover payroll and other essential expenses for roughly two months, and lawmakers had been looking at providing support for a longer period.

Mrs. Pelosi is likely to face pressure from House Democrats’ left wing to fight for other measures, including direct assistance to a broader range of people, expanded health care coverage and funding for voting by mail in November. Mr. Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Senate Democrats would push for the next bill to include increased pay for essential workers, a broad category that would include health care workers, grocery store clerks and transit employees, among others.

Whether those measures would be enough is uncertain.

“It’s hard to prescribe the appropriate amount of resources to address the financial crisis when the health crisis is very much blazing,” Rep. Andy Kim (D., N.J.), a member of the House Small Business Committee. “In the absence of clarity on the health side we’re constantly just trying to fill a hole that keeps getting deeper.”

Even after the next relief package or packages, lawmakers still anticipate they will turn to a broad stimulus bill that would include elements like infrastructure investments.

“You’re going to have a need for far more than what is done,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) said. “What we’ve done is a good start, it claws us back to the starting line, by no means does it get to where we were.”
Source: Dow Jones

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