Democrats in the House of Representatives have narrowly approved a $3 trillion bill to address the devastating economic blow from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the world’s hardest-hit country.
The measure passed the House on Friday in a 208-199 vote, but Republican leaders have pledged to block it in the Senate. President Donald Trump, a Republican, has also promised a veto if it were to reach his desk.
The enormous plan, which was opposed by 14 Democrats and approved by one Republican, 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 individuals and help for the unemployed, renters and homeowners, college debt holders and the struggling Postal Service.
“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. “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”
Steve Scalise, a top Republican, urged the House to defeat the huge bill, calling it a “socialist giveaway” and blaming China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year, for the suffering brought by the pandemic.
The outbreak’s economic fallout in the US has been massive, with some 36.5 million people – or more than one in five workers – filing for unemployment since the crisis began.
The bill’s passage came as the US recorded more than 85,000 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the US far outpace any other country.
Since March, Congress and the Trump administration have collaborated on four coronavirus bills, passing them with overwhelming bipartisan support.
This fifth bill, however, failed to attract Republican backing in the House except for Representative Peter King of New York, an epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
Republican Party leaders say they want to assess how $3 trillion approved earlier is working and see if some states’ partial business reopenings would spark an economic revival that would ease the need for more safety net programmes.
Republicans are also sorting through internal divisions and awaiting stronger signals from Trump about what he will support.
Trump and top Republicans, such as 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 Republican leaders are not yet on board.
Democrats oppose both of those ideas.
The bill’s passage on Friday could trigger a new round of negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans. To enhance the bill’s political effect, Democrats named their measure “The Heroes Act” for the payments it would provide front-line emergency workers.
As Democrats and Republicans sparred over the bill and its cost, the rhetoric sometimes became rancorous.
Democratic Representative Tim Ryan rattled off the destructive effect of a pandemic that has left millions unemployed, families unable to pay their rents and food banks struggling to meet growing demands.
“The Republican Party says ‘we don’t have any money to help ya’. Are you kidding me?” he shouted across the aisle in the House chamber that divides the two parties.
Earlier on Friday, the House also approved a change in its rules to allow members to temporarily cast their votes by proxy during the crisis if Pelosi deems it necessary.
The Democratic initiative, which was opposed by Republicans, marked an historic shift for Congress, which had never before allowed legislators to cast votes from anywhere but the House chamber.
It came as Congress struggled to function amid the pandemic, with members mainly sheltering at home in an effort to help stop the spread of the virus.
Under the new proxy-voting rules, House members could cast votes from remote locations.
Friday’s votes brought about 400 House members back to Washington for only the third time since late March.
The session was governed by physical distancing and other protective measures so the House does not become a breeding ground for the illness it is trying to contain. Many House members wore masks and some donned surgical gloves.