Lawmakers, many in masks, debate mammoth new aid package

WASHINGTON —
A nearly $500 billion measure helping businesses and hospitals cope with the coronavirus’ devastation edged toward House passage Thursday, as lawmakers’ face masks and bandannas added an eerie tone to Congress’ effort to aid a staggered nation.

“Millions of people out of work,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted, and the uncertainty of it all.”

The day’s debate was almost overshadowed by social distancing steps that produced a stark image of how the pandemic is changing what used to be normal behavior in Washington.

As Pelosi spoke, she lowered a white scarf that had covered much of her face.

House Chaplain Patrick Conroy delivered the opening prayer wearing a yellow protective mask, and most lawmakers and aides on the chamber’s sparsely populated floor wore masks as well. The public was banned from visitors’ galleries, which were being set aside for lawmakers in an effort to separate them.

The package was headed toward certain, overwhelming approval later Thursday, an action that would send the measure to President Donald Trump for his signature. The Senate approved the legislation Tuesday.

But partisan divides remained over the government’s response to the country’s unprecedented health and economic crises — some of them literally visible.

Of the roughly two dozen lawmakers on the chamber’s floor as debate began, just two were not wearing masks — Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky.

In addition, Republicans chided Democrats for holding up the initial version of the bill by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which included just $250 billion, all of it for small businesses. The bill expanded after Democrats insisted on more money for small businesses in minority and rural communities, hospitals and for virus testing.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., complained that Congress could have approved the small business aid two weeks earlier as the government exhausted an initial $250 billion lawmakers had provided in earlier emergency legislation. “And why, I don’t understand why,” she said.

Republicans say the delays likely forced some businesses waiting for the payroll subsidies to close. But they are nonetheless sure to back the measure by a wide margin.

Anchoring the bill is a request by the Trump administration to replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses.

Supporters are already warning that more funds will be needed almost immediately for the business-backed Paycheck Protection Program. Launched just weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.

Battle lines are forming over the next measure amid growing demands to help out state and local governments, the Postal Service and first responders.

Thursday’s House vote would bring the total cost of the four bipartisan bills to respond to various impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to about $2.5 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Washington’s impartial scorekeeper.

The bill started two weeks ago as a simple Trump-sought $250 billion replenishment of the oversubscribed payroll subsidy program and grew from there. The payroll program provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

It also contains $100 billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing program, along with a $60 billion set-aside for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighborhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders. There’s also $60 billion for small-business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster aid program.

The House planned to conduct its roll call votes under social distancing rules, with dozens of lawmakers voting at a time grouped in alphabetical order.

Pelosi has also orchestrated a vote to establish a select panel to provide oversight of the government’s efforts to battle the coronavirus, a move decried by Republicans as playing politics with the crisis.

Looking ahead to a next virus relief measure, Pelosi said there was a need for more funding for state and local governments, which already received $150 billion in last month’s $2 trillion coronavirus package. That would mean support for “the health care worker, the police and fire, the first responders, the emergency services people, the teachers in our schools, the transportation workers who get vital, essential workers to work,” she told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday.

Trump has said he supports including fiscal relief for state and local government in another virus aid package along with infrastructure projects.

But after Tuesday’s Senate vote, McConnell said there will be a lengthy Senate debate on the next package before billions more in spending will move through his chamber.

“We’re going to take a pause here, we’re going to wait … and clearly weigh before we provide assistance to states and local governments,” McConnell said Wednesday on Fox News Channel.

Among the targets for the next bill is the Postal Service, which has more than 600,000 workers, mostly covered under union-negotiated contracts, but is hamstrung financially by COVID-19-related revenue losses and pension-funding requirements.

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AP reporter Laurie Kellman contributed.