By Ken Bredemeier
The U.S. Senate failed for a second time Monday to advance a massive $2 trillion economic aid package to send money to most Americans and many businesses that have been severely impacted by the deadly coronavirus.
Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats for trying to add provisions not directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Markets are tanking once again because this body can’t get its act together,” McConnell said.
“This has got to stop and today is the day it has to stop,” McConnell said. “The country is out of time.”
But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said, “We’re getting close to reaching a deal, very close,” contending that procedural votes called by McConnell were a waste of time. Schumer said he expects the legislation to be approved later Monday.
“We all know time is of the essence,” Schumer said, adding, “We have obligations to get the details right. That means working to make this bill better.”
Democrats first blocked advancing the aid package on Sunday and, after more negotiations on Sunday night and Monday morning, again voted against moving the legislation forward on Monday afternoon. Neither vote came close to reaching the required 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to move the legislation toward final debate and a concluding vote.
Democrats said it was weighted too heavily to favor businesses over workers, hospitals and health care professionals. Republicans accused the Democrats of obstructing the aid at a time Americans need it the most as the effects of the virus severely impact their jobs and financial well-being.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. President Donald Trump’s key negotiator with lawmakers, rejected Democrats’ claims that aid would assist American businesses at the expense of individual workers.
“This isn’t corporate welfare,” Mnuchin told the Fox Business Network. “This helps all American workers.”
Later, after a new round of talks, Mnuchin said, “We look forward to a big vote today. We knocked off a bunch of things on the list already, and we’re closing out issues.”
But then the Senate again voted against advancing the legislation.
The aid package was aimed at boosting the U.S. economy by sending direct payments to more than 90% of Americans and a vast array of U.S. businesses to help them weather the immediate and burgeoning economic effects of the coronavirus.
Most U.S. families of four would get $3,000 in assistance, with the aid package also creating a $500 billion lending program for businesses, cities and states and $350 billion more to help small businesses meet payroll costs at a time when there is a declining demand for their products and services.
Democrats focused their objections on the $500 billion lending program for businesses, which some critics are calling it a “slush fund” because the Treasury Department would have wide discretion over who gets the money with little accounting for how the money is spent.
Trump appeared to agree with the Democrats’ contention.
“I don’t want to give a bailout to a company and then have somebody go out and use that money to buy back stock in the company and raise the (stock) price and then get a bonus,” Trump said Sunday. “So, I may be Republican, but I don’t like that. I want them to use the money for the workers.”
The negotiations over the scope and details of the legislation came as European and U.S. stock indexes continued their free-fall in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
By the end of trading Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 3% for the day, while the broad-based S&P 500 fell 2.9%. European markets dropped a similar amount in trading Monday.
Wall Street was coming off its worst week since 2008 and investors were looking to Congress and the rescue package to stem the losses.
Even as the lawmakers talked Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ophthalmologist by profession, announced that he had contracted the coronavirus, the first senator and the third member of Congress to test positive.
Aside from the obvious impact of the public health crisis, perhaps 2 million or more U.S. workers have been laid off from their jobs as thousands of schools, national businesses and such community enterprises as gyms, restaurants, bars and stores have shut their doors, either voluntarily or under state and local government orders.
Governors in at least 13 states have ordered millions of people to stay home, in effect quarantined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. No national shutdown is planned.
All stock market gains since President Trump took office in January 2017 have been erased in a matter of a few weeks, while economists say the U.S., the world’s biggest economy with more than $21 trillion in goods and services produced last year, could soon slip into a recession, its first in more than a decade.
The toll from the coronavirus is mounting in the U.S., with more than 41,000 confirmed cases and more than 500 deaths, with both figures markedly increasing in recent days.