A $1.8 trillion COVID-19 package was at a stalemate in Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon, with lawmakers in the Senate struggling to come to an agreement on what would ultimately shape the biggest economic aid legislation in modern history.
They do, however, broadly agree on the importance of direct aid to individual people — the package currently under consideration would include $1,200 in direct aid to most American adults, as well as $500 for children. That piece of the puzzle largely enjoys bipartisan support, though some lawmakers disagree as to whether that direct aid should take the form of a one-time payment or ongoing support.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said through a spokesman that she would support “as much wage relief to impacted workers as possible” from her position in the House.
“That’s what she hopes to see in the final package,” Craig Wheeler, Herrera Beutler’s spokesman, wrote in an email to The Columbian, adding that the congresswoman would also work on increasing speed and availability of testing for the coronavirus.
“She’ll review what eventually emerges from Senate negotiations and will continue to use her position as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee to shape the version considered by the House.”
At the heart of the Senate stalemate Monday was a proposed $425 billion fund to be handled at the discretion of the Federal Reserve. The office would use that fund to grant loans to businesses impacted by COVID-19, with little congressional control or oversight.
Senate Democrats pushed to attach strings to those loans that would protect individual workers, requiring company leaders to show they were using the funds to retain employees instead of enriching themselves.
Democrats were also concerned about transparency — under the bill contested Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could wait six months before disclosing which companies had been handed funds by his office.
Sen. Patty Murray, the senior Democrat from Washington, was among the 47 senators who voted against the package in a party-line vote. In a statement, she urged “Republicans to return to the negotiating table,” calling the current proposal “partisan and inadequate.”
“In the midst of an unprecedented national crisis, Republicans can’t seriously expect us to tell people in our communities who are suffering that we shortchanged hospitals, students, workers and small businesses, but gave big corporations hundreds of billions of dollars in a secretive slush fund,” Murray said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington also voted against the bill late Sunday and again Monday, when the legislation again fell short of the necessary 60 votes needed to pass, this time 49-46.
In a written message, Herrera Beutler indicated she would support stronger guardrails on the Federal Reserve business loan program than those currently included in the proposed Senate legislation.
“I’ll deal with the Senate bill when their negotiations are finished and legislation is sent to the House, but here’s what I believe — we need to make sure our employers can remain solvent, but that doesn’t mean giving big corporations a blank check to do whatever they want,” Herrera Beutler wrote.
“Government loans and payments should include guarantees that the money will not be used by corporations to buy back their own stock or provide bonuses to their executives.”
Details on direct aid
For American families, the direct aid outlined in the Senate package could have enormous implications as the coronavirus guts entire industries and leaves swaths of workers across the country unemployed virtually overnight.
The proposal currently being tossed around Capitol Hill would guarantee a $1,200 payment to every American adult who makes between $2,500 and $75,000 per year (or up to $150,000 per year for married couples).
Smaller payments would be made to people making between $75,000 and $99,000 per year — $5 less for every additional $100 over that salary threshold — with the program eliminated entirely for people who make more than $99,000 annually (or $198,000 for couples filing jointly).
Families with children would receive an additional $500 per child. Adults making less than $2,500 per year would receive a $600 check.
There’s not really a modern precedent for what such a near-universal, direct payout could do for the economy, said Scott Bailey, a regional economist in Southwest Washington. The closest parallel was the Great Recession, Bailey said, though there’s limitations to the comparison.
But what we saw in 2009 was a class divide in how direct aid is treated by individuals, Bailey said, and it’s likely that we’ll see that again.
“I kind of have to be careful here,” Bailey said. “I think what experience has shown, for people who actually need it right now to pay rent and buy groceries, it gets spent right away. For people who don’t need it, it tends to get saved. They view it as a windfall.”