After tugging, Congress and Trump agree on $2 trillion stimulus bill
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held out for removal of some of the worst aspects of the Republican coronavirus stimulus bill from the final compromise product. | AP

WASHINGTON—After tugging and hauling, shouting matches on the Senate floor, and days of round-the-clock closed-door talks, congressional Democratic leaders and representatives of GOP President Donald Trump apparently reached an agreement at midday March 24 on a $2 trillion stimulus bill to try to counter the job losses, work shutdowns and other economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats used their leverage two ways to force Trump to yield to their key demand: Independent oversight of what Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had called a $500 billion “slush fund” for businesses. The slush fund would have let Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – Trump’s lead bargainer – distribute money to favorite businesses.

One way the Dems reined in Trump was to block the pro-corporate measure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., tried to jam through the Senate over the weekend. The other was to craft and introduce their own comprehensive pro-worker alternative without GOP poison pills.

The $500 billion remains, but there are safeguards on its use and an independent inspector general to ride herd on the spending – just as there were similar safeguards for the Obama-era $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act designed to haul the U.S. out of the 2008 corporate-created crash.

And the House version of the legislation mandates any firm getting federal aid must pay its workers at least $15 an hour, starting Jan. 1. It gives 40 hours of paid sick leave to all coronavirus-hit workers, including contractors and subcontractors.

And the House bill banned firms from using the coronavirus as an excuse to fire workers, cut their pay or benefits or trash current union contracts. The ban on pay and benefit cuts extends to so-called “independent contractors” whom firms misclassify to escape jobless benefits payments, Social Security and Medicare payroll deductions – and organizing drives.

But there is one big pay cut in the House’s bill, for CEOs – and that slash, like the worker provisions in the bill, remains until the national emergency due to the coronavirus ends.

“The corporation may not have a CEO to median worker pay ratio of greater than 50 to 1 and no officer or employee of the corporation may receive higher compensation than the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position),” the House’s $2 trillion bill says.

“The Senate Republican bill put corporations first,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “Because of the insistence of” Senate Minority Leader “Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats, progress has been made. We urge the Senate to move closer to the values in the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act,” the House’s 1,404-page bill.

One of the two key cash provisions in the compromise bill that would aid workers is payment of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. The House wants those payments each month from now through the end of this year.

The House bill said that would include paying currently unpaid caregivers for people who test positive for the coronavirus, and currently unpaid caregivers – such as stay-at-home moms – for kids who previously were in school or daycare.

It was unclear whether those rules would remain in the final compromise bill.

The other was stronger – and more widely available – jobless benefits of up to four months of full-time pay. In almost all cases, full-time pay exceeds, and sometimes far exceeds, state-paid jobless benefits.

And Actors Equity reported both bills extended aid to musicians and other artists left without gigs when their venues were suddenly shut down.

“The Senate bill defines covered individuals as someone ‘scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job,’ and workers whose ‘place of employment is closed.’”

“This would help arts and entertainment workers who were working and had productions shut down and those who accepted an offer of employment but had their show postponed,” the union said.

Other financial provisions in the pending agreement included: A $350 billion small business fund to mitigate layoffs and support payroll; $240 billion to health care and another $75 billion specifically to hospitals, plus $20 billion for health care for veterans; $20 billion to keep bus and subway systems – who have been hemorrhaging riders due to state and local stay-at-home orders – and their workers going and $4.5 billion more for the Centers for Disease Control, the lead agency in the coronavirus fight.

The Senate and Trump demanded $50 billion more for the airlines, and billions more for the hotel and cruise ship industries. The House bill agreed on the amount – but said $40 billion of it would go to airline workers and the rest to the carriers. The airlines would forfeit the aid, though, the House said if they imposed “unreasonable” ticket price hikes on passengers, compared to prices through March 13.

The House bill also rolled back Trump’s three executive orders and a federal court ruling slamming the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers and their unions and worker rights and mandated federal teleworking.

It also said any federal worker who had to report to work – such as the airport screeners – even though a child or family member tested positive for the coronavirus and was quarantined would be repaid for child or family care costs, through the end of the year.

And in a key win for U.S. postal unions and the USPS workforce, the House version of the $2 trillion bill cancels the $11 billion in the remaining two years’ worth of mandated pre-paid health care costs that a GOP-run Congress imposed on the USPS in 2006. Those costs are virtually the sole reason the USPS has turned a profit on the mail itself but run in vats of red ink for the last decade or more – leading Trump and his right-wing allies to step up their postal privatization campaign.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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