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The Senate is under tremendous pressure to send President Donald Trump a bill passed by the House to help Americans deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but complaints from a few GOP lawmakers and technical snags could delay action for up to several days.
The package providing free virus testing and paid sick leave for many workers is almost certain to pass this week, though Senate rules allow any one senator to delay a final vote for days. The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the House early Saturday morning, is running into resistance from some Republicans worried about the impact of a temporary paid sick leave provision on small businesses.
It’s unclear when the Senate will vote on the virus bill. The chamber is set to debate a surveillance measure, and it would take the permission of all 100 senators to address the virus bill early in the week.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday that the administration is trying to allay concerns about the legislation, which is aimed at blunting some of the economic impact for workers and families as the coronavirus outbreak spreads in the U.S.
“We are hearing feedback that certain small businesses are concerned about the burden of this. We were very focused, we need to get the money to people quickly,” he said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “We don’t want them to have to deal with big bureaucracy.”
He said the Senate should pass the bill but said if there are objections, “we’ll work with the Senate on whatever minor changes we need,” he said.
Trump has already given his blessing to the legislation. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated on Sunday the White House wants to see the Senate work quickly to get it to the president’s desk when the chamber returns to Washington this week.
“We strongly support the House legislation,” Pence said at a White House briefing. “Working with members of Congress, we’ve made sure that not only is testing free but we have every confidence that the extension of paid and family leave to Americans will be extended in a way that should give every American that confidence.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled the chamber’s scheduled recess this week to take up the package, which includes free testing for everyone who needs it, and up to 12 weeks of paid sick and family leave to allow people with the virus to stay home from work and avoid infecting co-workers, or care for a family member or children whose schools have been closed.
It also includes enhanced jobless benefits, increased food aid for children, senior citizens and food banks, and higher funding for Medicaid benefits.
The National Federation of Independent Business, however, has opposed the measure over a requirement that businesses with 500 or fewer employees provide paid sick and family leave, even though the federal government would cover the tab. On the other end of the political spectrum, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union blasted the bill as “weak” and “unacceptable” because it would exempt big corporations who employ about 80 percent of the workforce.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, an ally of the president, criticized the paid sick leave provision in a statement Saturday and pushed for an alternative approach that would have states alter unemployment insurance programs to pay workers staying home because of the virus.
“I hope the Senate will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm – or, if it won’t, pass nothing at all,” he said. “The president and states already have adequate authority and funding to address the current situation.”
In a statement Sunday night, McConnell said the Senate was still awaiting the final version of the House bill.
“I know Senators on both sides are carefully reviewing the details and are eager to act swiftly to help American workers, families, and small businesses navigate this challenging time,” he said.
The Senate this week also is set to consider an extension of authorities under the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that expired on Sunday. Until that’s passed, any action on the virus relief bill would require unanimous consent, according to McConnell’s office.
Senate Democrats expressed their frustration that the Senate isn’t moving more quickly even as the virus continues to spread.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called on McConnell Sunday to pass the bill along with any bipartisan fixes, as well as a temporary extension of FISA authorities, by unanimous consent so senators don’t have to fly back to Washington.
“Your decision to call us back to Washington this week is unnecessary and puts many innocent people at risk,” Durbin said.
Mnuchin said Saturday that the House will have to pass technical corrections to the bill, which was drafted on the fly Friday night during lengthy negotiations between him and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before its passage by the House after midnight on Saturday.
He didn’t detail what fixes are needed, and Democrats declined to give any specifics about where any technical changes need to be made. That could be done without having the entire House return for another vote as long as there are no objections, but it adds another wrinkle that could slow final action in the Senate.
There was no comment through a spokesman for Pelosi. She didn’t indicate any plans to change the House’s schedule in a letter to lawmakers urging them to have the majority of their staff telework this week, with the House on recess.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and the White House backed the bill after successfully narrowing the paid sick leave provisions, including adding a partial exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees and making the program temporary.
Forty Republicans voted against the bill, with many complaining it was being rushed through without a cost estimate.
Lawmakers in both chambers have already started talking up a follow-on economic stimulus package along with the White House.
— With assistance by Laura Litvan, Billy House, and Anna Waters
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