Democrats push $3T coronavirus relief bill toward House OK

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Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., smiles during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats powered a massive $3 trillion coronavirus response bill toward passage Friday, a measure designed to prop up a U.S. economy in free fall and a health care system overwhelmed by a pandemic that’s killed over 86,000 Americans.

Friday’s vote was sure to be partisan and sets up a long, difficult negotiation with the White House and Senate Republicans over what is likely to be the last major COVID-19 response bill before November’s presidential and congressional elections.

The enormous measure drafted by House Democrats would cost more than the prior four coronavirus bills combined. It would deliver almost $1 trillion for state and local governments, another round of $1,200 direct payments to most individuals, and help for housing payments, the Postal Service and holders of college debt.

Debate on the legislation offered a Capitol scene that’s become common in the era of coronavirus, but remains disconcerting. The sparsely populated House floor was dotted with lawmakers and aides wearing protective masks, though several knots of Republicans went to the floor without them.

The bill was sure to go nowhere in the Senate. Its Republican leaders have urged a “pause” to assess prior efforts and have scheduled votes on federal judicial nominees next week as the party sorts through differences between conservatives and moderates, particularly over aid to state and local governments. They are also awaiting stronger signals from President Donald Trump about what he will support.

“Not to act now is not only irresponsible in a humanitarian way, it is irresponsible because it’s only going to cost more,” warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”

The White House promised a veto of Friday’s legislation, a symbolic move because the Senate’s opposition assures it will never reach Trump.

“Phase Four is going to happen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, using Washington insider-speak for the measure. “But it’s going to happen in a much better way for the American people.”

The House measure amounted to Democratic opening bid in upcoming negotiations with the White House and the Senate. Previous talks were often bitterly partisan even as they produced compromises that passed by sweeping, even unanimous votes.

Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are insisting the next measure should protect reopening businesses from liability lawsuits. The president is also demanding a cut to payroll taxes, but GOP leaders are not yet onboard.

House Democrats, meanwhile, are setting priorities like aid for student borrowers, almost $1 trillion for state and local governments confronting layoffs and service cuts, and money to help people make rent and mortgage payments and pay their utility bills.

Lawmakers have already negotiated four bipartisan efforts to pump almost $3 trillion into the economy, but the bipartisan consensus that drove those efforts is crumbling quickly. Polls show GOP voters are satisfied with the federal response so far and aren’t agitating for more. Self-branded deficit hawks are citing the massive increase in the spiraling $25 trillion national debt.

The Congressional Budget Office didn’t have time to estimate the cost of Friday’s measure, which Pelosi’s office could only characterize as “more than $3 trillion.” Other offices said the total would breach $3.5 trillion or more. But a partial estimate of tax provisions alone revealed eye-popping costs — $412 billion to renew $1,200 cash payments to individuals, more than $100 billion to pay COBRA health insurance premiums for the unemployed, and $164 billion to make an “employee retention” tax credit for businesses more generous.

Trump and his GOP allies dismissed Friday’s bill as a Democratic wish list. They are pressing hard to reopen shuttered states and counties as the path to recovery rather than more safety-net measures like expanded jobless benefits.

Few Republicans were expected to vote for the bill, with party leaders preferring to pause before considering more aid. That reflects disunity between conservatives who feel enough has been done and more pragmatic lawmakers who favor steps like rescuing the Postal Service from looming insolvency, while delivering cash to revenue-starved state and local governments. The huge price tag and a lack of consultation with Republicans by Pelosi cemented GOP opposition.

“This bill is nothing more than the Democratic policy agenda masquerading as a response to the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. He said the bill is “going nowhere, and is going nowhere fast.”

Republicans blasted provisions like delivering $1,200 direct payments and refundable tax credits to workers living in the country illegally, giving the cannabis industry long-sought banking privileges, and mandating vote-by-mail and other election changes that arouse GOP suspicion.

Pelosi overcame some party divisions of her own, with a handful of moderate members opposing the package for being too partisan and a few progressive Democrats upset because it did not do more.

Freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, facing a competitive reelection in a GOP-leaning district, labeled the measure “bloated” in a statement. Liberal Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters that if constituents ask her if the bill would put money in their pockets or preserve their health care, “I can’t tell them yes.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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