Dems block McConnell $2 trillion COVID-19 bill: ‘Slush fund for hotels, not hospitals’
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. | Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP

WASHINGTON—Calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill “a slush fund” to help hotels, not hospitals, Senate Democrats blocked McConnell’s scheme and they—with their House colleagues—crafted and unveiled their own pro-worker alternative. Its contours were emerging on March 23.

The sticking point in the highly partisan GOP-written legislation which McConnell called up on March 22 was $425 billion in business handouts to be solely under the control of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the Democrats said. Another $75 billion would go to state and local governments to help them cope with the impact of the pandemic.

It failed on a 47-47 tie on March 22, and on a 49-46 vote in the afternoon of March 23. It needed 60 votes to move on.

“We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told reporters.

And before the second vote, Senate Democrats lambasted the GOP for, among other holes, having weak worker protections in their bill that would still let firms fire workers even if those companies received aid.

The impact of the pandemic is most obvious in New York, California, and Washington state, where GOP President Trump has federalized the states’ National Guard so those troopers can help with health care, setting up clinics and the like, but the federal government, not the states, would pay the guard members.

New York illustrates the scope and the speed of the pandemic in the U.S. Its number of positive coronavirus cases rose by 30% in one night, to 20,875, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), said on March 23. Some 621 are intensive care and 150 have died. Cuomo ordered hospitals to increase their bed capacity by 50%.

But McConnell’s bill didn’t target workers, even with its provision for $1,200 checks for every adult and $500 for every child. Instead, it was a business bonanza, Democrats said.

“When I look at the language in this present legislation, my God, it is shameful,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told his colleagues on March 22 before McConnell lost a 47-47 tie vote on a procedural move to set up debate and voting on his measure. Five Republicans, self-quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus, didn’t vote.

“This bill has a $425 billion slush fund with which, basically, the Secretary of the Treasury can say: I like you; you get this. I don’t like you; you get nothing.”

“There is no transparency—no way for the Congress to know” how those businesses—which could include Trump’s hotels and resorts, since there are no criteria for who should get the cash—use it, he added. “Six months after you give a loan is when we might finally find out. That is unacceptable.”

“We are not going to have all this money, in part, be used for stock buybacks. We are not going to see corporate executives have big increases in their salaries and benefits. That is not what the American people’s taxpayer money is for.”

“It is shameful that, in the midst of a pandemic, the ideological views are seeking to be incorporated in a way that has nothing to do with dealing with COVID–19—nothing,” Menendez added, using the official name for the coronavirus.

“The denial of certain health groups to be able to access funding at a critical time in our country has nothing to do with COVID–19,” he said, alluding to a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, one of many right-wing mantras stuffed into McConnell’s bill.

“They’re throwing caution to the wind for average workers and Main Street and going balls in for the people on Wall Street,” added Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose state was the last to report a positive coronavirus test victim—and many of whose constituents are still in denial about the pandemic.

But business bailouts were priority #1 after both the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 Great Recession—and both aims were achieved under the Republican George W. Bush administration, angering progressives in particular, who have long memories of how workers, the poor and the jobless were left behind.

Business bailouts won’t be priorities in the legislation the House’s majority Democrats are crafting, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., speaking for the leadership in the party’s weekly radio and video address. Contours of Democratic aid bill are emerging as members of the House make their way back into town after a week-long recess.

The House passed two previous and smaller aid bills and the Senate—reluctantly—and Trump agreed to them.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are holding firm, demanding that any relief bill prioritize workers over corporations. | Alex Brandon / AP

The House legislation, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, would require firms getting aid to “shield workers’ wages and benefits, and limit CEO compensation, stock buybacks, and layoffs.”

It also would have the direct checks both parties agree upon, plus expanded family and medical leave, even beyond what the prior $8.3 billion law Trump signed last week OK’d.

There would be grants and loans for small businesses, with the strings on businesses Pelosi mentioned, stronger jobless benefits, even more money for hospitals to add beds and equipment to treat coronavirus sufferers, and imposition—by Congress through an order to OSHA—for an emergency safety standard ordering hospitals and nursing homes to implement worker protection plans for their nurses and other employees.

The House measure would send even more money out for food stamps and other nutrition assistance, plus $40 billion to schools and universities while providing unspecified student debt relief.

And, with states postponing presidential primaries left and right and with fears that a November election with in-person voting could lead to a resurgence of community spread of the coronavirus due to both long lines and cold weather, the measure adds state election grants and orders all the states to provide 15 days of early voting and to allow absentee voting for all who ask, without having to give reasons.

With the Democratic-crafted bill, “we cannot repeat the mistakes we made” after the two prior big crises, DeFazio said. “The results for corporations were great while working families were left behind. So Democrats won’t support relief for corporations without guardrails that make sure workers are taken care of first.”

That includes making sure workers retain their health insurance and their retirement accounts stay solvent, he said—unlike what happened after the 2008 crash, when workers lost jobs, homes, pensions, and insurance.

Besides providing more jobless benefits with fewer or no restrictions on seeking them, the Democrats are warning corporations they’re going to come down hard on future firms that use the coronavirus pandemic to shaft their workers while lining their own corporate pockets, he added.

“No stock buybacks, no giveaways, no layoffs. That also means capping corporate pay, and prohibiting golden parachutes and bonuses for CEOs.”

Union building trades workers also stepped forward, donating their construction masks to National Nurses United, who have been screaming, along with other nurses unions, about the lack of protective equipment. Without that, the nurses and others get sick, too, and can’t treat victims of the pandemic.

“The health and safety of our members and their families is always job number one,” said NABTU President Sean McGarvey. “All of North America is our family right now, and we stand ready to help. We commend the thousands of nurses, first-responders, and healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line every day during this pandemic. Given the shortage of health supplies, we are asking our contractors and our own training centers to donate N-95 respirators and other protective equipment like face shields and goggles as quickly as possible in their own communities. Our men and women will continue doing all we can to support those in need during this critical time.”

“We are beyond grateful to the building trades for their generous donation of respirator masks and other equipment to help protect nurses and other health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Our nation’s leaders have failed to protect us while we care for this country’s sick, and we condemn their inaction. Working people always have each other’s backs, even when our government does not.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced that in a pinch, even a bandanna or scarf is adequate protection for nurses, triggering an upset NNU to post a very satiric ad featuring nurses wearing bandannas. “The CDC’s guidelines are meaningless because they are based on inadequate stock, not on actual science about what protects nurses and other health care workers,” said Castillo. “We need the highest level of protections—N-95 respirator masks and other protective gear—not surgical masks or bandanas.”

“The building trades unions are stepping up to help get us that equipment, as the government should have begun doing months ago.”

Other provisions of the emerging alternative Democratic $2 trillion stimulus plan include, but are not limited to:

“Carefully crafted and restricted loans” to firms to prevent bankruptcies, but also “to protect the taxpayers,” said Menendez, who sits on Senate panel’s dealing with financial matters. “Without these loans being available in the very next few days, some of these companies will file bankruptcy.”

“Many thousands of these employees will lose their jobs. We are trying to pass this bill to keep that from happening—128,000 workers in one company; 92,000 workers in another company; 79,000 workers in yet another.” He did not identify the firms.

Cancellation of student loan debt payments, both principal and interest, an idea Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pushed during her now-closed presidential campaign and that she talked Senate leaders into advocating.

A $200 monthly increase in Social Security payments, also pushed by Warren. That would particularly help women and retirees of color, whose Social Security earnings—during their working years—were lower than those of men due to racial and sexual discrimination in pay. Warren also talked Senate leaders into restrictions on corporate chieftains’ grabs of business relief money—the grabs DeFazio and Menendez denounced.

$2,000 monthly checks for adults, pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., who is still officially in the Democratic presidential race, though he’s shifted his massive online individually based fundraising focus to having his backers donate money to charities aiding coronavirus victims. In the last two days, $48 million came in.

“This is a moment when we will look back and say, ‘How did the people of the United States respond?’” he told backers in a 5,000-person roundtable the night of March 22. “This is the equivalent of a war and we cannot allow large corporations to be profiteering” from it, he stated.

Governors and mayors of both parties, upset and disgusted with Trump’s slow response—and outright inaction—in responding to the pandemic, are moving ahead with drastic public health and economic measures without waiting for him. They have a precedent for that, too: When the Great Depression hit in October 1929, FDR, then the Democratic governor of New York, handed out massive relief aid to the state’s citizens.

Trump said in a press conference on March 23 that “the governors are going to be in command” and “we will be following them.” Before that, he blasted them, especially the Democrats, drawing a response the week before from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D-Ill., that the federal government “should get its s**t together.”

And the current chair of the governors’ conference, Larry Hogan, R-Md., wasn’t exactly praising Trump, either, even before the governors’ sixth conference call, in fewer than two weeks with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

The governors, Hogan told reporters on March 23, “have received a little bit of what they’ve been asking for” from the Trump regime. “But it’s not enough, and it’s not fast enough.”

“We’re all building the airplane as we fly it right now,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., told ABC’s This Week. “It would be nice to have a national strategy.”

Hogan has been one of the most aggressive governors in actions to curb public movement that could aid the coronavirus through “community spread.” He previously closed all Maryland schools, bars, restaurants, gyms, arenas and other gathering places that could attract crowds.

On March 23, he extended closures further, including golf courses. And to expand hospital capacity in Maryland, Hogan ordered the Baltimore City Convention center, an arena which normally seats at least 12,000, and the next-door Hilton Hotel to be converted into emergency hospitals to house coronavirus patients.

At that same press conference, he said he would take money from the state’s rainy day fund to give direct grants to small businesses. “And anybody who has to apply for unemployment compensation will get it within two business days, and they can apply online or over the phone,” he said.

That extension of jobless benefits, Hogan added, applies not just to people quarantined because of the coronavirus, but to their families and to those laid off because businesses were ordered to close. “If you’ve been told to close, you’ll get unemployment,” he said.

Maryland is also “incentivizing” firms to switch production from their normal consumer goods to the N95 respirators and masks, and other equipment health care workers need to help combat the pandemic. All are in short supply. “We have cries from hospitals around the state,” as do other governors, Cuomo said.

Some firms have already switched, even without incentives. DeFazio mentioned distillers in Oregon have switched to making the 70% alcohol health care workers need for sterilization. Cuomo said Trump should invoke the Defense Production Act—the law Harry S. Truman used to seize the steel mills during the Korean War before the Supreme Court ruled his action unconstitutional—to force firms to make the respirators, masks, and other health care equipment.

“We can’t wait for the federal government,” Hogan concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.