Washington, Mar 18 (efe-epa).- The US Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday in favor of a second package of emergency measures to address the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Already passed by the House of Representatives, the $100 billion bipartisan bill sailed through the upper chamber by a vote of 90-8 and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it as soon as it reaches his desk.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, whose basic outline emerged from talks between the administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, includes provisions for free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, family leave for caregivers, food assistance for the needy, enhanced unemployment insurance and increased Medicaid funding for states.
But the benefits are restricted in various ways. Firms with more than 500 workers – or fewer than 50 – are exempt from the requirement to pay sick leave, while family-leave payments are capped at $200 a day.
Though Trump’s White House was satisfied with the text that came out of the Democratic-controlled House, some of the president’s fellow Republicans in the Senate insisted on changes and the lower chamber obliged, at least on some points.
The changes didn’t go far enough for some GOP senators, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged them to vote for the House bill.
“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,” he said, vowing to keep the Senate in session as long as necessary to approve a “phase three” economic stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Congress’ first action on coronavirus was an $8.3 billion measure to fortify the US health care system to cope with the challenge posed by COVID-19. The total number of cases in the US reached 7,038 on Wednesday, while the death toll stood at 97.
Comments from lawmakers and the Trump administration indicate the size of the eventual stimulus bill will be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion.
Among the elements likely to be part of the legislation are support to airlines, the hospitality industry and other sectors hit hard by coronavirus-driven restrictions on travel; allowing people and companies to delay tax payments; and one-time cash payments to all US workers.
Earlier Wednesday, during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Trump said he was invoking the Defense Production Act, a 1950 allowing the president to compel US firms to manufacture goods deemed vital to national defense.
The most pressing needs in dealing with COVID-19 are ventilators and protective gear for health care workers.
Trump also announced that the administration was “suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April” to aid people whose incomes have been hammered by the various closures and lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the virus.
Despite the talk of a massive stimulus and the steps already taken by the Federal Reserve to ensure the continued functioning of the banking system and financial markets, the US benchmark stock index plunged again on Wednesday.
The Dow 30 lost more 1,334 points, or roughly 6.3 percent, by Wednesday’s close on the New York Stock Exchange, after being down 2,300 points earlier in the session.
The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index plummeted 7 percent at mid-day to trigger an automatic halt to trading for 15 minutes. The S&P rebounded slightly to end the day down 5.2 percent. EFE