House to vote Thursday on coronavirus economic stimulus

House to vote Thursday on coronavirus economic stimulus
© Greg Nash

The House will vote Thursday on sweeping legislation to address the economic fallout of the coronavirus, House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Powell, Mnuchin stress limits of emergency loans | House seeks to salvage vote on spending bill | Economists tell lawmakers: Kill the virus to heal the economy House moves toward spending vote after bipartisan talks House Democrats mull delay on spending bill vote MORE (D-Md.) said Wednesday.

Democrats are still ironing out the details of the stimulus package, including its size, but Hoyer put the price tag "in the billions." Party leaders are expected to brief members of the caucus on the specifics on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

"It's being written now, so we'll see how expansive it is," he said. "We're looking at a range of issues that are the economic consequences, as opposed to the direct health consequences" of the epidemic.

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The timeline means that the stimulus package will head to the Senate just as both chambers of Congress are leaving town for a scheduled weeklong recess.

With that in mind, Hoyer acknowledged that no economic relief legislation is likely to reach the president's desk before both chambers return to Washington the week of March 22, though he left open the possibility that lawmakers could be called back to vote on emergency bills if the need arises.

"Because of what we're confronting, and the seriousness of it, we're making decisions on a day-to-day basis," he said.

The rush to get a second coronavirus bill through the House this week was spurred by pressure from rank-and-file Democrats wary of returning to their districts for the long recess without having addressed the economic damage resulting from the spreading coronavirus, which the World Health Organization deemed Wednesday to be a pandemic.

Last week, Congress allocated $8.3 billion in emergency funding for coronavirus relief, focused largely on the immediate health concerns related to the growing epidemic. The major provisions of that package included efforts to expand public health research, boost the production and dissemination of test-kits and expedite the diagnostic process.

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The second round of relief features a shift to address the economic fallout of the virus, as more and more schools cancel classes, businesses scrap annual conferences, airlines scale back flights and travelers and workers opt to stay at home.

Yet the Democrats and President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE have vastly different ideas about what form that economic stimulus effort should take. Trump visited the Capitol on Tuesday to promote a sweeping cut in payroll taxes for workers across the board. That proposal has received a cold reception on Capitol Hill, even among some powerful Republicans, and Hoyer called it "a non-starter."

"I don't think there's a lot of enthusiasm for that," he said.

Behind House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare House lawmakers reach deal to avert shutdown Centrist Democrats 'strongly considering' discharge petition on GOP PPP bill MORE (D-Calif.), Democrats are pushing instead for the expansion of safety nets for those most directly affected by the virus. Their stimulus bill will include provisions to provide free testing for the virus, expand unemployment insurance for those affected, extend paid sick leave for workers forced to stay home and subsidize meals for students who might otherwise go hungry due to school closures.

Given the lingering uncertainty about the spread of the virus around the country, Hoyer said the Democrats' bill won't allot specific funding amounts to each program. Instead, "the amount will be dictated by the need."

"It'll be in the billions, but I don't want to go beyond that," he said. "It's going to be costly, but I will tell you this: It would be much more costly if we don't provide this relief."

Pelosi had met Tuesday in the Capitol with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Powell, Mnuchin stress limits of emergency loans | House seeks to salvage vote on spending bill | Economists tell lawmakers: Kill the virus to heal the economy Economists spanning spectrum say recovery depends on containing virus Powell, Mnuchin stress limits of current emergency lending programs MORE to discuss their plans for Washington's response to the epidemic's economic damage. Hoyer said the pair spoke again Wednesday morning, though it's unclear if the White House is ready to abandon its payroll tax cut and support the Democrats' alternative stimulus strategy.

As lawmakers scramble to keep pace with the growing coronavirus damage, Hoyer and Pelosi both seem to have ruled out one suggested response: Hoyer said they won't be empowering lawmakers to vote remotely as a way to avoid large gatherings.

"We think that establishes a very bad precedent and can create all kinds of problems," he said.