Senate passes $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package

The Senate passed a historic $2 trillion coronavirus relief package Wednesday night, as it tries to stem the destruction the pandemic has brought to American lives and wallets.

The chamber approved the mammoth bill in a unanimous 96-0 vote after days of furious negotiations, partisan sniping and raised tempers on the Senate floor. The bill now heads to the House, which will push to pass it by voice vote Friday morning as most representatives are out of Washington.

“This is a proud moment for the United States Senate and for the country and we’re going to win this battle in the very near future,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after the vote.

The 880-page legislation includes direct payments to individuals, stronger unemployment insurance, loans and grants to businesses and more health care resources for hospitals, states and municipalities. It includes requirements that insurance providers cover preventive services for the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

The Senate rushed to pass the sweeping aid bill as data are expected to show a historic spike in unemployment claims after businesses across the country shuttered to try to slow the outbreak’s spread. Some hospitals have started to buckle under a flood of patients, asking for critical supplies such as masks and ventilators.

Coronavirus cases in the U.S. number more than 68,000, while deaths have now topped 1,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The chamber approved the plan to combat the outbreak as the crisis started to thin its ranks. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did not vote after testing positive for COVID-19, and neither did GOP Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee of Utah, both in isolation after contact with their colleague. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota senator and second-ranking Republican, also missed the vote after feeling ill.

While the Senate took precautions Wednesday such as keeping votes open longer to reduce crowding, senators still huddled in groups and chatted.

Speaking before the chamber passed the bill, McConnell said the Senate would not return until April 20. However, he said lawmakers would be “nimble” as the evolving crisis could force further action to boost the American economy or health care system.

“If circumstances require the Senate to return for a vote sooner than April the 20th we will provide at least 24 hours of notice,” he said.

Before passing the bill, the Senate first rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., to cap unemployment insurance at a recipient’s previous wages. The bill adds $600 per week to the benefits a recipient would normally get for up to four months. Sasse’s amendment failed in a 48-48 vote.

The senator and three of his GOP colleagues threatened to delay passage of the legislation if they could not get a vote on an amendment. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., then suggested he could hold up the bill’s approval if they did not back down from their opposition.

While the snag caused fears the bill would not pass, hitting U.S. stock indexes just before markets closed Wednesday, it ultimately did not stop the Senate from approving the proposal.

In a letter to colleagues Wednesday night, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the chamber will convene at 9 a.m. Friday to consider the legislation. The Maryland Democrat said that “in order to protect the safety” of representatives and staff and “prevent the further spread of COVID-19,” he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., expect the House will take a voice vote.

“Members who want to come to the House Floor to debate this bill will be able to do so. In addition, we are working to ensure that those who are unable to return to Washington may express their views on this legislation remotely,” he wrote.

House approval would send the package to President Donald Trump’s desk. He has expressed support for the agreement his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin negotiated with Senate Republicans and Democrats.

During a White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Trump said he would sign the legislation “immediately” after Congress passes it.

Lawmakers already approved two pieces of legislation to respond to the crisis. It approved $8.3 billion in emergency medical funding and a $100 billion plan to expand paid leave and unemployment insurance — both of which were dwarfed by the scope of the third package.

As the pandemic rips through the country, senators signaled they may need to provide more relief. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose home state of New York has been more ravaged by the outbreak than any other part of the country, told reporters the “odds are high” Congress will need to pass more aid measures.