House Democrats late Wednesday night introduced emergency legislation to help reduce the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak by providing financial backing to those most immediately affected, including an expansion of paid sick leave and unemployment benefits.
A vote is expected Thursday, just before lawmakers leave Washington for a previously scheduled week-long recess. The bill is expected to pass easily through the House, though it remains unclear when – or if – the Republican-controlled Senate will take it up.
The package comes as lawmakers face mounting pressure to help mitigate the economic hit from the coronavirus as a growing number of airlines cancel flights, travelers cancel plans, sports leagues cancel games, and schools and workplaces announce closures. Even the Capitol is preparing to suspend public tours through at least the rest of this month.
“We cannot fight coronavirus effectively unless everyone in our country who needs to be tested knows they can get their test free of charge,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We cannot slow the coronavirus outbreak when workers are stuck with the terrible choice between staying home to avoid spreading illness and the paycheck their family can’t afford to lose.”
Central to the reforms, the proposal expands unemployment insurance — providing states with at least $1 billion to compensate for administrative costs and other contingencies arising as a result of the coronavirus response.
The bill also provides $500 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to provide food assistance for low-income mothers who lose their jobs due to the coronavirus, as well as $400 million to help local food banks meet increased demand.
In the event of school closures lasting at least five consecutive days, the bill would also allow for emergency food stamps assistance for households with children who normally receive free or reduced-price meals at school.
The legislation further suspends work and work training requirements for food stamps.
While the sweeping legislation allocates specific spending toward certain programs, other provisions are more open-ended, indicating that funding will arrive through mandatory programs like Social Security based on need — a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding just how widely the virus has spread in its early stages.
The U.S. is one of the only wealthy industrialized countries without a national paid sick leave policy. It’s estimated that approximately a quarter of American workers, particularly in the service sector, currently lack access to paid sick leave through their employers.
Democrats’ legislation would require all employers to let workers accrue at least seven days of paid sick leave as well as 14 additional days available immediately in a public health emergency.
It would also create a federal emergency paid leave benefits program for people who must take extended time off work to be quarantined, receive medical treatment for coronavirus or care for a child affected by school or care facility closures due to the coronavirus.
Eligible individuals would receive two-thirds of their average monthly earnings up to $4,000 for up to three months. People must have worked in the 30 days before they were impacted by the coronavirus in order to qualify.
The legislation also requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require health care sector employers to develop a coronavirus exposure control plan to protect workers.
Democrats unveiled the legislation after Trump announced in an Oval Office address to the nation that he was suspending travel from most of Europe for 30 days beginning Friday. The ban will not include the United Kingdom, even though it currently has nearly 500 coronavirus cases.
Trump also said that he will “soon be taking emergency action [to] ensure that working Americans impacted by the virus can stay home without fear of financial hardship.”
He added that he will be “asking Congress to take legislative action to extend this relief.”
Trump also reiterated his call for a payroll tax cut – an idea that hasn’t gained much traction in either party on Capitol Hill – as well as asking Congress to increase funding for the Small Business Administration low-interest loan program by $50 billion.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday called the payroll tax cut idea “a non-starter.”
Pelosi has been in frequent talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in search of a deal. The pair met in the Capitol on Tuesday and spoke by phone at least twice on Wednesday, when they also exchanged a series of text messages throughout the afternoon.
Pelosi also spoke by phone with Vice President Mike Pence – who’s in charge of the White House’s coronavirus task force – and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But Democrats are determined to press on with their own proposal.
“I think there’s an emergency in this country. And I think it’s absolutely essential that someone just light the fire and ignite a proposal,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told reporters in the Capitol earlier Wednesday. “And we put the proposal together as effectively as we could, as soon as we can. And I hope all the other parts of government respond.”
While passage in the House is all but certain, it’s unclear if there’s an appetite for it in the GOP-controlled Senate. Pelosi has negotiated successfully with Mnuchin on funding bills in the past, but the administration did not immediately endorse the Democrats’ bill.
Complicating the debate, both the House and Senate are slated to leave Washington on Thursday for a pre-scheduled weeklong recess, providing a short window to get the bill to Trump’s desk, particularly if Senate Republicans balk at certain provisions of the House proposal and demand changes.
At a Rules Committee hearing that ran into the early hours of Thursday, Republicans were skeptical of certain provisions of the package, but also expressed a clear willingness to work with Democrats to address the crisis.
“There are a lot of places that are in a lot of trouble right now, and so sometimes you have to move quick and come back and fix it later,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the senior Republican on the committee. “And we may be in one of those situations.”
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who served as health secretary under President Clinton, offered another reason for Congress to unite this week behind a quick emergency response: the public, she said, needs reassurances that the federal government is acting aggressively to contain the outbreak.
“I think it’s a mental health bill,” she said during the Rules debate. “I think it’s a bill to reassure and reduce the anxiety and the fear that’s out there in this country.”
The legislation would be in addition to the $8.3 billion emergency spending bill that Trump signed into law last week to boost agencies’ efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. That initial package focused largely on the most immediate health-related needs stemming from the virus, including provisions to boost public health research and disseminate coronavirus test-kits around the country.
Hoyer said that in talking to Fauci, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, he believes the $8.3 billion is currently enough to address the immediate challenges “from a health perspective.”
Fauci testified earlier Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee that the outbreak in the U.S. is only “going to get worse.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) also officially declared on Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak amounted to a global pandemic.
The U.S. has surpassed 1,200 cases, with close to 40 deaths as of Wednesday evening. Globally, the coronavirus has infected more than 115,000 and killed more than 4,200.