Congressional leadership including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, on Capitol Hill, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)
Congressional leadership including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, on Capitol Hill, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)

Democrats and Republicans have reached a deal four times. Can they assemble a fifth package of help before going on vacation?

[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in August. It took until late December to ultimately reach an agreement. Read the initial details here.]

Even as congressional leaders and President Donald Trump try to hammer out a new round of stimulus aid for those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, it can be confusing to remember everything that has been done so far, much less what is being proposed by Democrats and Republicans for the next package.

There have been four rounds of relief passed by Congress and signed by Trump since the outbreak began. The fifth round being debated this week is likely to be the last attempt before the November election. 

Each package of legislation has been an attempt to reduce the health and economic impacts of an outbreak that has killed 155,000 Americans and ripped tens of millions of jobs out of the American economy. 

Here’s a summary of what has been passed so far and what’s being debated this week for a fifth edition. 

Package No. 1

The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, H.R. 6074

When Trump signed the first emergency spending bill on March 6 specifically targeted toward the new coronavirus outbreak, the nation had scarcely seen 300 total cases of COVID-19. Cruise ship passengers were stranded at sea, various states, Wisconsin included, were reporting their first suspected infections, and there were fears a strong U.S. economy was about to take a significant tumble from what had been a nearly complete recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The $8.3 billion in that first federal aid package included $1 billion for public health agencies to quickly get up to speed on coronavirus testing, $3 billion for the early phases of vaccine development, and subsidized emergency loans for small businesses.

By Congressional standards, the bill passed at light speed. After a weekend of negotiations, it was formally introduced on a Wednesday and passed almost unanimously by the House and Senate on Thursday. 

President Trump signed it the next day saying, “So here we are, $8.3 billion. We’re doing very well. But it’s an unforeseen problem. What a problem. Came out of nowhere, but we’re taking care of it.”

Package No. 2

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, H.R. 6201

The ink wasn’t dry on the initial bill when conversations began in Washington on what would be needed next. Within two weeks the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had reached 7,000, and the death toll had risen past 150. 

Leaders wrote a $103 billion package that offered enhanced benefits for millions of newly jobless Americans, and tax credits for the businesses that would be required to offer paid sick leave for many of their idled workers. 

Around $1 billion went to states to help them cope with a historic level of new unemployment claims.There was also increased funding for food assistance programs to benefit seniors and families facing continued or new income loss.

Private health plans were required to make coronavirus testing free.

On Friday, March 13, shortly after President Trump declared a national emergency, the House of Representatives passed the bill, 363-40, with all of Wisconsin’s Republican members voting against it. 

On March 18, the measure passed the Senate 90-8, with Sen. Ron Johnson among the few to vote no. President Trump signed the bill later that day as discussions began on what many predicted would be a follow-up bill of more than $1 trillion.

Days later, only reaffirming the need for more help, Wisconsin would report more than 100,000 new unemployment claims had been filed from mid-March to mid-April, a 1,200 percent increase over the same period in 2019. And the state reported its first three deaths from COVID-19.

Package No. 3

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, H.R. 748

You’re likely most familiar with the third relief package, a big bill known by the acronym CARES. This is the $2.2 trillion stimulus program, the largest in U.S. history, that included direct checks to millions of Americans and the start of something known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 

As discussions got underway to design this legislation, the outbreak’s magnitude was sharply amplified on March 17. Gov. Tony Evers ordered all Wisconsin bars to close by 5 p.m., disrupting any plans for packed St. Patrick’s Day parties. And in Washington, D.C., U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told remaining skeptical Republicans in Congress that if they failed to approve a big stimulus bill U.S. unemployment would reach 20 percent, double the level during the Great Recession in 2009. 

(A week later the U.S. Commerce Department would report 3.3 million new unemployment filings, five times the level seen during the Great Recession.)

Along with $100 billion for hospitals and another $100 billion for public health agencies, the CARES Act funding was divided up in ways that also included:

  • $250 billion in direct checks of $1,200 (plus $500 per child) for about 160 million households.
  • $250 billion to fund an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits.
  • $350 billion to create the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP was designed to help America’s small businesses pay rent, utilities, employee benefits, and 50 percent of their monthly payroll in order to minimize permanent layoffs. An estimated 1.6 million forgivable loans were made, some to businesses not normally thought of as small.
  • $508 billion in big business bailouts—most of it used to subsidize or guarantee loans—that would be closely audited thanks to Democrats’ push for more transparency. Airlines received about $60 billion in assistance after seeing the number of passengers fall 95 percent.

The Senate passed the bill 96-0 on March 25 while the U.S. recorded its 1,000th death from the virus, even as the President said the country would resume normal operations by Easter. Wisconsin recorded its 700th case and eighth death.

The House passed the CARES Act two days later in a nearly unanimous voice vote. 

Hours after final passage, President Trump signed the bill but included a statement gutting the transparency language. Days later, he replaced the official who was supposed to be the head of the CARES oversight board. Over the following three months details emerged about how some of the largest loans went to billionaires, Trump administration officials, members of Congress, political donors, and wealthy financial institutions while other entities like small family farmers fell through the cracks of PPP eligibility rules.

The CARES Act also included very loosely restricted funds for states to allocate as each governor deemed most necessary. In Wisconsin, Gov. Evers has used the state’s $1.9 billion to provide assistance in a variety of areas that include farmers, renters, small businesses, and numerous sectors of health care.

Package No. 4

The Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, H.R. 266

A week after passage of the CARES Act, the nation tried to absorb the news that unemployment was now a way of life for 6.6 million Americans. The PPP was swamped with demand, and Congress began work on replenishing the pot with another $320 billion. 

Democrats refused to support the bill until it was expanded to include another $75 billion for hospitals, and $25 billion to fund more coronavirus testing. They also won language that earmarked small business funding for rural communities and communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

The House passed the bill on April 23 on a vote of 388-5. The Senate passed it unanimously by voice vote. 

Trump signed the bill on April 24, shortly after the nation recorded the 50,000th death from the virus. Wisconsin had reached 5,000 COVID-19 cases and 262 deaths.

Package No. 5 – Currently Under Debate

Democratic package: The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) Act, H.R. 6800 

Republican package: The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act. This is a package of bills and does not yet have a single bill number encompassing them all.

Less than three weeks after the PPP was restocked, Democrats began work on a fifth aid bill, a second comprehensive package topping the trillion-dollar mark. Called the HEROES Act and passed on May 15, its foundation is a new round of direct support to Americans that could total up to $6,000 per family, depending on the number of children. 

Republicans have slowly begun assembling their version. Nicknamed the HEALS Act, it also includes a new round of stimulus checks, likely to be equal to what was passed in the CARES Act.

The two proposals have several common subjects and stark differences.

Essential workers hazard pay – The Democratic bill allocates $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers. The Republican proposal has nothing similar.

Unemployment benefits – The biggest fight over a new coronavirus aid bill revolves around how much or how little to provide unemployed workers—the number of which has only grown since the first round of relief passed. The Democratic plan resumes the extra $600 weekly supplement and extends it through the end of the year as a way to prevent a further plunge in consumer spending. The Republican proposal would cut that extra assistance to $200 per week until October when states have to replace the flat rate with benefits that are recalculated to total no more than 70 percent of a worker’s wages prior to the job loss. Critics say states, Wisconsin included, have had major struggles working with a higher flat rate and are not nearly ready to adjust their system to calculate the lower benefits.

Education aid – With the nation engaged in a debate over whether to resume in-person schooling during a still-roaring pandemic, it’s no surprise the congressional bills diverge on education aid. Republicans are offering $105 billion, with $70 billion designated for K-12 schools. But two-thirds of that aid is tied to costs for reopening in-person instruction. Democrats are proposing $100 billion in education aid without the in-person strings attached.

Individual assistance – The Democratic plan includes $175 billion to assist with rent and mortgage payments in order to prevent a flood of evictions. Utility payment relief and job training assistance is also in the bill.

Corporate assistance – Businesses get a replenished Paycheck Protection Program and emergency business loans in the Republican plan, while Democrats are seeking a tax credit more directly tied to keeping more existing workers on an employer’s payroll. Neither plan includes Trump’s demand for a payroll tax cut.

Local governments – State, local, and tribal governments would get assistance from the Democrats’ HEROES Act with $1 trillion in aid that could be applied toward first responders, healthcare workers, transit employees, teachers, other COVID-related expenses, and lost local revenue. 

McConnell, R-KY, offers no new state and local government help in the proposed HEALS Act, but the Republican plan would give those governments greater flexibility in using about $150 billion of remaining CARES funds, including the ability to backfill some of that lost revenue.

Corporate liability protection vs. workplace safety – A cornerstone of the Republican plan is greatly expanded protection for businesses to reduce their legal liability in case workers or customers get sick, even preempting state workplace safety rules. The bill also turns the tables, reports the Los Angeles Times, and would allow employers to sue employees who demand safer workplaces and then offer to settle out of court. Democrats, conversely, are pushing for clearer and better-enforced workplace standards.

Health care – Lest you think the dueling coronavirus bills had forgotten about the fight to test, trace, and limit the spread of the virus, the Republican bill includes $41 billion. The Democratic bill has $75 billion in a variety of healthcare-related provisions.

Both bills have extra items that have invited scrutiny and angry words from opponents. The Democratic bill includes $191 billion in student loan forgiveness or relief, $25 billion to assist the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, and a requirement that mailed ballots be an option for voters nationwide. 

The Republican bill raised eyebrows with language that included $1.8 billion for a new FBI headquarters to be constructed at its current site rather than in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The downtown rebuild is a priority of the Trump Organization that does not want the site to be purchased by a competing hotel. 

And while the GOP bill has no new funding for nutritional assistance programs, it allows a temporary 100 percent dedication on the cost of business meals, immediately derided as the “three-martini lunch deduction.”

Where Things Stand Now

At the time of this writing, with the August recess less than a week away, negotiations continue between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows over how to meld the competing proposals—$3 trillion from the Democrats, $1 trillion from the Republicans – into something that can once again pass both house of Congress. All three said on Sunday they remain far apart.

The extra $600 in weekly unemployment assistance ended over the weekend for 30 million Americans, including 208,000 in Wisconsin who have swollen the ranks of those who are not below the poverty line but do not make enough to pay all of their living expenses to more than half-a-million people

Republicans tried to pass a standalone measure extending the benefits temporarily rather than progress on a more comprehensive package as Democrats had done more than two months ago. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said again Sunday Republicans oppose the $600 boost.

When House Democrats passed their version of a comprehensive package on May 15, the U.S. death toll was 82,000. Another 72,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since then. Wisconsin has added 500 deaths since mid-May, and the total number of coronavirus infections has increased five-fold.

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