Senate, White House reach a deal on historic economic package

It wasn't easy, and it took longer than expected, but Senate leaders and the White House have reached an agreement on a $2 trillion economic rescue bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2020.NBC News
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By Steve Benen

It wasn't easy, and it took a little longer than many would've liked, but around 2 a.m. (E.T.) this morning, Senate leaders and the White House reached an agreement on a $2 trillion economic rescue bill, intended to help mitigate the effects of the coronavirus crisis.

It's the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history, and though some of the details are still coming into focus -- the legislative text is still being written right now -- the package is likely to do a lot of good. The direct payments to Americans remain one of the centerpieces of the proposal.

Under the plan, people making up to $75,000 a year are expected to receive checks for $1,200. Couples making up to $150,000 would receive $2,400, with an additional $500 per child. The new agreement removed the phased-in provision that would have excluded lower-income Americans from receiving the full benefit. The payments would decrease for those making more than $75,000, with an income cap of $99,000 per individual or $198,000 for couples.

This is, of course, a far more progressive model than the one pitched by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) late last week.

But just as significant is the bill's expansion of the unemployment insurance program -- or as Democrats call it, "unemployment insurance on steroids." In a letter to his members sent early this morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped lead the negotiations for his party, explained:

"The extended UI program in this agreement increases the maximum unemployment benefit by $600 per week and ensures that laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months. It ensures that all workers are protected whether they work for businesses small, medium or large, along with self-employed and workers in the gig economy."

This may not have been the provision that generated the most chatter in recent days, but it may prove to be among the most important: as millions of Americans lose their jobs, this massive investment means many of these folks will not have to go without. Indeed, for many low-income workers who are suddenly unemployed, the benefits in this plan will effectively keep them at their usual income levels, at least for a short while.

NBC News' report added, "The bill is also expected to include roughly $100 billion in assistance for hospitals; $350 billion in assistance to small businesses; $500 billion in aid for corporations, including airline companies and cruise lines, that have been hurt by the outbreak; and about $150 billion for state and local stimulus funds."

The half-trillion-dollar "corporate rescue fund" has been among the most controversial elements of the plan, in large part because the Trump administration sought to structure it in such a way as to ensure minimal transparency and accountability. As a result of the bipartisan talks, however, the program will have inspector-general oversight and frequent Treasury Department reporting to Congress.

So, what happens now? The plan in the Senate is to finish writing the legislative text this morning and then pass the bill this afternoon. The chamber rarely acts this quickly, but there's broad agreement that these are not normal circumstances. On the other side of Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already endorsed the broad contours of the Senate compromise, but many House members are unavailable, especially after their recent interactions with two lawmakers who've since tested positive for COVID-19.

It's likely House leaders will try to pass the bill by unanimous consent. The White House has already signaled Donald Trump's willingness to sign the deal into law.