WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed an unprecedented $2.2 trillion economic rescue package into law Friday, after swift and near-unanimous action by Congress to support businesses, rush resources to overburdened health care providers and help struggling families during the deepening coronavirus epidemic.
Acting with unity and resolve unseen since the 9/11 attacks, Washington moved urgently to stem an economic free fall caused by widespread restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus that have shuttered schools, closed businesses and brought American life in many places to a virtual standstill.
“This will deliver urgently needed relief,” Trump said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office, flanked only by Republican lawmakers. He thanked members of both parties for putting Americans “first.”
Earlier Friday, the House gave near-unanimous approval by voice vote after an impassioned session conducted along the social distancing guidelines imposed by the crisis. Many lawmakers sped to Washington to participate – their numbers swollen after a maverick Republican signaled he'd try to force a roll call vote – though dozens of others remained safely in their home districts.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously late Wednesday.
“Today we've all acknowledged our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The $2.2 trillion legislation will speed government payments of $1,200 to most Americans and increase jobless benefits for millions of people thrown out of work. Businesses big and small will get loans, grants and tax breaks. The law will send unprecedented billions to states and local governments, and the nation's all-but-overwhelmed health care system.
“This is not a time for cynicism or invective or second-guessing,” said GOP Whip Liz Cheney of Wyoming. “This is a time to remember that we are citizens of the greatest nation on Earth, that we have overcome every challenge we have faced, and we will overcome this one.”
Despite reservations, arch conservatives joined with progressives to back the bill, which moved quickly through a Congress that's been battered by partisanship and is itself not immune to the suffering the virus has caused.
Tea party Republicans said government orders to shutter businesses merited actions that conflict with their small-government ideology. Liberals accepted generous corporate rescues that accompany larger unemployment benefits, deferrals of student loans, and an enormous surge of funding for health care and other agencies responding to the crisis.
The run-up to the vote contained an element of drama because libertarian conservative Thomas Massie, R-Ky., announced plans to seek a roll call vote.
Leaders of both parties united to prevent that, because it would have forced lawmakers back to the Capitol or blemished their voting records if they stayed home. Instead, they made sure enough lawmakers attended Friday's session to block Massie's move under the rules, and lawmakers took the unprecedented step of sitting in the visitors galleries to establish the necessary quorum.
The House promptly adjourned for a weeks-long recess but will return later in the spring to consider further legislation.
“This bill is ... a commitment that your government, and the people whom you elected to serve you, will do everything we can to limit the harm and hardship you face, both now and in the foreseeable future,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
The legislation dwarfs prior Washington responses to crises like 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and natural disasters.
Key elements are untested, such as grants to small businesses to keep workers on payroll and complex lending programs to larger businesses. Rebate payments will go to people who have kept their jobs. Agencies like the Small Business Administration and state unemployment systems will be severely taxed, and conservatives fear that a new, generous unemployment benefit will dissuade jobless people from returning to the workforce.
The legislation also establishes a $454 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries in hopes of leveraging up to $4.5 trillion in lending to distressed businesses, states and municipalities.
There is also $150 billion devoted to the health care system, including $100 billion for grants to hospitals and other health care providers buckling under the strain of COVID-19 caseloads.
It also seeks to strengthen the safety net for the poor and homeless. Schools and students would get relief, small-business loan payments would be deferred. Evictions from public housing would be put on pause. Republicans successfully pressed for an employee retention tax credit designed to help companies keep workers on payroll.