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Somber Congress delivers nearly $500B more in virus aid

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

(AP) — Congress delivered a nearly $500 billion infusion of coronavirus
spending Thursday, rushing new relief to employers and hospitals
buckling under the strain of a pandemic that has claimed almost 50,000
American lives and one in six U.S. jobs.

The measure passed almost
unanimously, but the lopsided tally belies a potentially bumpier path
ahead as battle lines are being formed for much more ambitious future
legislation that may prove far more difficult to maneuver through

The bipartisan measure neared passage as lawmakers
gathered in Washington as a group for the first time since March 27,
adopting stricter social distancing rules while seeking to prove they
can do their work despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Lawmakers’ face
masks and bandannas added an somber tone to their effort to aid a nation
staggered by the health crisis and devastating economic costs of the

“Millions of people out of work,” said House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We
come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people
impacted, and the uncertainty of it all. We hope to soon get to a
recovery phase. But right now we’re still in mitigation.”

the bill is the Trump administration’s $250 billion funding request to
replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll,
rent and other expenses. The payroll program provides forgivable loans
so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed
for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

It also contains
$100 billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide
testing program, along with a $60 billion set-aside for small banks and
an alternative network of community development banks that focus on
development in urban neighborhoods and rural areas ignored by many
lenders. There’s also $60 billion for small-business loans and grants
delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster
aid program.

President Donald Trump celebrated the bill’s passage
at his daily White House briefing Thursday. “At a time when many
Americans are enduring significant economic challenges, this bill will
help small businesses to keep millions of workers on the payroll,” he

The 388-5 vote — with Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., voting
“present” — came at the end of a nettlesome path to passage. Republicans
sought immediate action on Trump’s “clean” request for the small
business money — backed by powerful, GOP-leaning business groups — but
Democrats demanded equal funding for their priorities, frustrating
Republicans who accused them of seeking leverage during the crisis.
Republicans said delays in replenishing the paycheck subsidy program
probably pushed some struggling businesses over the edge into closure.

of the pandemic were everywhere in the House chamber Thursday. As
Pelosi spoke from the floor, she lowered a white scarf that had covered
much of her face. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy delivered the opening
prayer wearing a yellow protective mask, and most lawmakers and aides on
the chamber’s sparsely populated floor wore masks as well.

With the entire Capitol closed to the public, visitors’ galleries were set aside for lawmakers in an effort to separate them.

of more coronavirus relief is likely in the weeks ahead. Supporters are
already warning that the business-backed Payroll Protection Program
will exhaust the new $250 billion almost immediately. Launched just
weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving
nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in
limbo as they sought help.

Pelosi and allies like Ways and Means
Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said the next measure will
distribute more relief to individuals, extend more generous jobless
benefits into the fall, provide another round of direct payments to most
people and help those who are laid off afford health insurance through

Democrats tried to win another round of funding for state
and local governments in Thursday’s bill but were rebuffed by Senate
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who says he’s going to try pump
the brakes on runaway deficit spending. McConnell says he doesn’t want
to bail out Democratic-governed states for fiscal problems that predated
the pandemic, but there’s plenty of demand for state fiscal relief
among Republicans, too.

After the Senate passed the latest bill
Tuesday, McConnell declared that Republicans would entertain no more
coronavirus rescue legislation until the Senate returns to Washington,
promising rank-and-file Republicans greater say in the future
legislation, rather than leaving it in the hands of top bipartisan

Pelosi attacked McConnell for at first opposing adding
any money to his original $250 billion package and saying cash-strapped
states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy, a move that they
currently cannot do and that would threaten a broad range of state
services. McConnell’s comments provoked an outcry — including from GOP
governors — and he later tempered his remarks.

“Oh, really?” Pelosi said. “What made you think that was a good idea?”

measure brings total rescue funding over the four measures, as measured
by the cumulative deficit impact of spending proposals and tax cuts, to
$2.4 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

day brings new evidence of the economic calamity wrought by the virus.
Thursday morning the government reported that 4.4 million people filed
for unemployment benefits last week as layoffs sweep the economy. Over
the last five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless
aid, or about one in six U.S. workers.

The state of Michigan announced this week that it is temporarily laying off almost 3,000 workers.

told, the four coronavirus relief bills crafted by Congress would
deliver at least $2.4 trillion for business relief, testing and
treatment, and direct payments to individuals and the unemployed,
according to the Congressional Budget Office. The deficit is virtually
certain to breach $3 trillion this year and is likely to go well above
that when CBO issues new data as early as Friday.

Among the
candidates for aid in the next bill is the Postal Service, which has
more than 600,000 workers but is getting clobbered by COVID-19-related
revenue losses.

In related matter, the House used a party-line 212-182 vote Thursday to establish a special committee to oversee how the Trump administration spends the huge sums of money Congress is providing to battle the coronavirus. Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the crisis, but Democrats said Congress needs to keep an eye on the effort.

Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.