President Donald Trump signed a massive emergency aid package on Wednesday night aimed at addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
The package, approved hours earlier by the Senate, provides for free testing, two weeks of paid sick leave for some workers, an extra $1 billion in food aid, extended jobless benefits, and a boost to Medicaid benefits.
The Senate approved the bill 90-8 with support from Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans.
Congress will now turn to negotiating a $1 trillion stimulus package that could include bailouts for airlines and other key industries reeling from the global outbreak, along with direct payments to Americans who have lost jobs as the economy staggers.
“There is a vital role for the federal government to act in times of emergency and crisis. This is one of those times,” Cruz said, adding that the bill “ will provide much-needed relief for the men and women in Texas who right now are hurting as a result of this outbreak, including waivers to allow schools to continue serving meals during temporary closure and greater access to COVID-19 testing.”
He cited qualms about a “burdensome” mandate requiring small businesses to provide paid leave to employees. Cruz voted for an amendment from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., to shift the burden to taxpayers by expanding unemployment insurance. That effort failed.
The House approved the bill with just 40 no votes late Friday — including a half-dozen Texas Republicans — and added “technical corrections” on Monday under a deal struck by House leaders from both parties.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted the changes were not controversial but they required unanimous approval to avoid a one-week delay.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, an East Texas Republican, temporarily froze the bill, demanding time to review the new provisions, but relented hours later after lobbying from the White House and GOP minority leader Kevin McCarthy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had urged conservatives reluctant to go along with some provisions on ideological grounds to “gag and vote for it anyway.”
“It is a well-intentioned bipartisan product, assembled by House Democrats and President Trump’s team, that tries to stand up and expand some new relief measures for American workers,” he said. “This is a time for urgent bipartisan action, and in this case, I do not believe we should let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers.”
Cruz cast his first votes in two weeks, returning to Washington on Wednesday after nearly two weeks in voluntarily isolation at home in Houston after being exposed to people who later tested positive.
Senators kept their distance through the votes, and the Senate doubled the usual time allowed for votes on each amendment and on final passage to 30 minutes, allowing lawmakers to quickly come and go without congregating in the chamber.
The average age in the Senate tops 62, which puts most members at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the new coronavirus, for which there is no vaccine or cure.
© 2020 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.