WASHINGTON — House Democrats moved toward passage Friday of a $3 trillion tax cut and spending bill that they have said would aim to address economic fallout from the coronavirus, directing huge sums of money into all corners of the economy.
But the White House and Senate Republicans have already said they will immediately cast the bill aside, leaving uncertain what steps policy makers might take as the economy continues to face severe strains.
The sweeping legislation, dubbed the “Heroes Act,” also faces opposition within the House Democratic caucus, with some moderate lawmakers objecting to voting on a bill that they all know will not become law. Some liberals, meanwhile, have complained that the package does not go far enough to aid the public in the midst of an unprecedented economic meltdown.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed forward anyway, arguing that the bill will put down a marker for Democrats’ priorities and set the stage for negotiations on the next bipartisan relief bill.
“The Congress of the United States must honor its responsibility to the American people to lessen the blow of the coronavirus by making the serious investment of The Heroes Act to our state, local, tribal and territorial governments,” Pelosi said Friday in a public letter to all members of the House. “The plan that we are voting on today will make a tremendous difference not only in the budgets of the states but in the lives of the American people.”
The 1,800-page legislation contains a dizzying array of provisions: nearly $1 trillion for state, local and tribal governments; another round of direct payments to individuals, up to $6,000 per family, including to unauthorized immigrants; $200 billion for hazard pay for essential workers; $75 billion for coronavirus testing and tracing; increased spending on food stamps; $175 billion in housing support; student loan forgiveness; and a new employee retention tax credit and extension of unemployment benefits.
It also includes measures less directly related to the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. It would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning this November, and temporarily repeal a provision from the 2017 GOP tax law that limited a federal deduction for state and local taxes, something that would largely help higher-income areas. The legislation would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, spending Trump has vociferously opposed as he’s pressured the agency to charge higher rates to Amazon and others.
“The bill is simply a Democratic agenda masquerading as a response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in floor debate Friday morning. “The bill will go nowhere and go there fast ... why we’re going through this exercise rather than negotiating in a bipartisan manner is beyond my understanding.”
As Washington scrambled to deal with the growing impact of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, the White House, state governments, local officials, and businesses took steps to send many Americans home as a way to try and contain the contagion. This led to a mass wave of layoffs that began more than two months ago and have continued every week since, particularly as Americans have sharply pulled back spending.
Congress has passed four bipartisan coronavirus relief bills that have already cost around $3 trillion to try and blunt the economic fallout. While Republicans and Trump administration officials agree that more action will be necessary at some point, they say it’s time to pause and see how the programs already funded are working before devoting even more federal funds to the crisis as deficits balloon.
“Let’s see how it goes,” White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Friday. “I don’t believe we can spend ourselves into prosperity.”
Trump is pushing for the economy to reopen as quickly as possible, and said recently that he’s “no rush” to sign off on additional spending.
That argument angers Democrats who say Republicans are turning a blind eye to the tens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs. They also point to comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell who warned this week of a prolonged economic downturn and said additional spending would be “costly but worth it.”
Friday’s floor debate proceeded in what has become the new normal for the House in the time of the coronavirus: The chamber was largely empty except for members who were speaking or presiding and some staff. Everyone was wearing masks, though some took them off to deliver remarks. When it comes time to vote, lawmakers will cycle in and out of the chamber in small groups assembled alphabetically, so that a vote that would normally take 15 minutes to conduct stretches to well over an hour. The chamber will be emptied periodically to be cleaned and wiped down.
As the pandemic unfolds with no end in sight, the House was also voting Friday on a rules change that will allow for remote voting by proxy, so that in future votes can happen without all members present. Republicans opposed the rules change, calling it unconstitutional, while Democrats said it was necessary so that the House could continue to conduct business safely.
Pelosi navigated competing demands in her own caucus as she assembled Friday’s coronavirus bill. Lawmakers including members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus had pushed for a “Paycheck Guarantee” program that would offer more generous assistance to individuals than the new round of one-time payments included in the bill. Some moderate lawmakers, including freshmen who flipped GOP-held seats and face challenges in November, expressed unease about forcing through what they viewed as a partisan messaging bill. Lawmakers in both camps complained about the process that presented them with a mammoth bill written largely at the leadership level, and little time to review it.
“Unfortunately, many members of Congress — including some in my own party — have decided to use this package as an opportunity to make political statements and propose a bill that goes far beyond pandemic relief and has no chance at becoming law, further delaying the help so many need,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said in a statement Friday. “Therefore, I will respectfully vote against this bill.”