The 8 key provisions expected in Democrats’ next COVID-19 bill
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats are charging ahead this week with the next round of emergency coronavirus relief — another massive, multitrillion-dollar package designed to buttress the economy against the devastating pandemic.
The enormous bill — the fifth legislative response to COVID-19 — could arrive as early as Monday or Tuesday, according to Democratic aides. That sets the stage for a House vote as soon as Friday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said.
Dubbed CARES 2, the legislation is expected to adhere largely to the contours of the first CARES Act, enacted March 27, by providing help to medical providers, small businesses, workers and families most affected by the crisis.
But with House Democrats taking the first crack at this latest round of relief — without any GOP input — the proposal is expected to feature a host of additional provisions, excluded from earlier bills, to act as a values statement heading into negotiations with Republicans in the Senate and White House. And Pelosi is urging Democrats not to be shy about their suggested add-ons.
“The Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank has told us to ‘Think Big’ because interest rates are so low,” Pelosi wrote to Democrats in a Mother’s Day message. “We must ‘Think Big’ For The People now, because if we don’t, it will cost more later. Not acting is the most expensive course.”
With that in mind, Democratic aides said the package will likely top the $2.2 trillion price tag of the CARES Act — and launch a fierce partisan battle over which groups should benefit from what could be the last major coronavirus-response bill to move through Congress.
GOP leaders are already signaling they’d prefer to wait a few weeks to gauge the effectiveness of the previous rounds of relief before launching into another.
“I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in the Capitol on Monday.
Meanwhile, the following are eight major provisions expected in the forthcoming Democratic bill.
State and local help
Democrats have made it no mystery that the single largest line-item of the next round of relief will be funding for state and local governments, which have been clobbered as the pandemic has spiked emergency workforce costs while simultaneously shrinking tax revenues. That combination, Democrats argue, has threatened the jobs of the same front line responders — police officers, 911 dispatchers and medical workers, to name a few — most crucial for a recovery.
Their bill, as outlined by Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), is expected to include three separate buckets of local government funding: one for states, another for counties, and yet another for municipalities. The total cost, Pelosi has said, will approach $1 trillion.
That provision sets up a fight in the Senate. While President Trump has voiced support for more state aid, GOP leaders have opposed extra funding, arguing it would bail out governors for self-imposed budget problems that preceded the coronavirus.
Rent and mortgage assistance
Millions of out-of-work Americans are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage during the coronavirus crisis. Democrats want to give them more certainty when it comes to putting a roof over their head.
Reps. Denny Heck (Wash.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.), the powerful Financial Services Committee chairwoman, have teamed up on legislation, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, that calls for a new $100 billion program to help families and individuals pay their rent and utilities.
Taking their cue from the #CancelRent movement, liberal firebrands like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are pushing more drastic legislation that would halt rent and mortgage payments altogether during the pandemic. But that proposal has unnerved landlords, won’t fly with Democratic moderates and will be ignored by leadership.
The initial CARES Act — negotiated by Democratic leaders and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — gave most Americans a one-time $1,200 relief check. It proved to be enormously popular, but voters say it wasn’t enough.
Democrats are now rallying behind a proposal to give most Americans a monthly $2,000 relief check throughout the duration of the pandemic. The recurring checks or direct deposits would provide an added safety net for many families as they struggle to buy groceries and pay rent during the economic shutdown.
At least four Democratic lawmakers, including progressive Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), have authored direct payments legislation. Pelosi hasn’t signaled her preference, but she has been talking up the idea on conference calls with members and in her Mother’s Day message.
“Direct payments, unemployment insurance, rental and mortgage help and student loan assistance are essential to relieve the fear that many families are facing,” Pelosi wrote.
Help for workers and businesses
As states across the country forced businesses to close while keeping customers indoors, Washington stepped in to try to mitigate the damage. They did it largely by expanding unemployment insurance benefits and creating the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which offers forgivable loans to small businesses and is designed to keep employees on the payroll even as revenues dry up.
Neither has kept pace with the demand. More than 32 million people have filed unemployment claims over the past seven weeks. And the PPP has blown through roughly $540 billion of the $670 billion Congress has allotted the program since the end of March.
The Democrats’ new aid package is expected to provide hundreds of billions of dollars more to replenish both initiatives. Pelosi has also vowed to tweak the guidelines of the PPP, to ensure that smaller businesses in underserved areas are not cut out of the program.
Alternatively, Democrats are also eyeing a strategy for replacing the PPP with a program that provides federal grants directly to employers, allowing workers to remain employed — and receiving health benefits — without navigating approval through the middleman banks.
Pelosi and Democratic leaders have, for now, veered away from earlier plans to move an enormous infrastructure package as part of the next round of coronavirus relief. But certain infrastructure provisions are sure to appear in their CARES 2 bill, and none more prominent than an expansion of broadband service to rural, low-income and other vulnerable communities.
The proposal has a powerful champion in Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip, who is pushing for roughly $80 billion in new broadband funding for those regions, citing the disadvantage to students and patients who can’t otherwise access remote health and education services during the pandemic.
“Just as the Great Depression made clear to many that electricity was the ‘next greatest thing’ in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the ‘next greatest thing’ for many in the 21st century,” Clyburn said last week.
Pelosi has said Democrats might also push for language in CARES 2 preventing water utilities from cutting service during the pandemic.
Testing, tracing, treatment
At the center of the battle over reopening the economy is a complicated debate over coronavirus testing. In the broadest strokes, Trump and his GOP allies are urging a quick alleviation of social distancing standards around the country for the sake of reviving the shattered economy. Democrats, meanwhile, have joined the chorus of public health experts in warning that a rush to normalcy could spark a surge in cases, forcing another lockdown and demolishing any economic recovery the reopening was designed to promote.
Testifying last week before a House committee, Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told lawmakers that U.S. health officials will need “at least two or three times the current volume” of tests to reopen the country safely.
Pelosi is on board. While Congress adopted $25 billion for testing in their last “interim” coronavirus bill, the Speaker says it’s not enough, and CARES 2 will provide billions more.
“The sooner we can identify the scale of this problem with the testing, testing, testing, tracing, [and] treatment, the sooner we’ll be able to open up our economy,” Pelosi told Gray TV on Sunday. “Not to do that is to prolong this.”
Americans interact almost every single day with the United States Postal Service. But the massive federal agency is hemorrhaging money and could go bankrupt this fall, forcing officials to dramatically scale back popular mail-delivery services. The coronavirus, by slashing advertising by mail, has only exacerbated the crisis.
Trump has not been sympathetic; he’s called the postal service a “joke” and threatened to reject any aid in the next coronavirus bill unless it hikes its shipping rates for online retailers like Amazon.
Pelosi and Democrats have already vowed to include rescue funding for the postal service in their next bill. They’re aiming for at least $25 billion in direct aid, a figure they sought in negotiations for the first CARES legislation but that was rejected by GOP leaders.
Separately, they’re calling for as much as $4 billion to help states create systems for all-mail balloting — a provision designed to protect this year’s elections if the coronavirus remains a health threat in November.
A sticking point in the debate over the initial CARES Act was Democrats’ demand for a 15 percent increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps. They didn’t get it, and party leaders are now promising to use CARES 2 to fill the void.
The advocacy is hardly new; Democrats have long championed supplemental nutrition programs for low-income families. But the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has heightened their urgency. Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lowey and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) argued for increases in not only SNAP, but also a separate program to help schools feed children and local food banks meet the surge in demand.
“We have an obligation as a nation,” they wrote, “to protect the health and lives of the American people.”
Pelosi and Democratic leaders will stage a conference call with the full caucus Monday evening to discuss the emerging CARES 2 proposal.