The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved $484 billion in fresh relief for the U.S. economy and hospitals hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, sending the measure to the lower House of Representatives for final passage later this week.
The bill, approved on a voice vote by the handful of senators present in the near-empty chamber, was hurried along shortly after congressional leaders and the White House brokered an agreement.
The House is expected to vote on Thursday on what would be the fourth coronavirus-response law. Taken together, the four measures amount to about $3 trillion in aid since last month to confront a crisis that has killed more than 43,000 Americans.
President Donald Trump urged Congress to quickly approve the measure, which mainly expands funding for loans to small businesses, leaving additional aid to state and local governments for a later bill.
The coronavirus has massively disrupted the way the Congress functions in only a few months since it spread to the United States after first appearing in China last year, with historic legislation being passed with only a few lawmakers present.
House Democratic leaders have announced that Thursday’s vote on the bill could be followed by a vote to change the chamber’s rules to allow “proxy” voting when necessary. This would mean not all of the House’s 429 current members would have to be in the chamber to cast their votes, a crucial issue when most of the country is under stay-at-home orders and practicing social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
At the end of March, Washington provided nearly $350 billion in loans to small businesses impacted by the economic fallout from the coronavirus that can turn into grants if certain requirements are met. That funding was quickly exhausted.
Critics of the program said too much of the money had gone to larger, better-connected businesses. Indeed, burger chain Shake Shack Inc said on Monday it would return a $10-million loan it received after coming under public criticism.
To reduce the risk of large companies getting the bulk of the loans, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said, $125 billion of small business funds in the latest package would go to “mom and pop” and minority-owned stores.
The deal includes $321 billion for a small business lending program, $60 billion for a separate emergency disaster loan program – also for small businesses – as well as $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for national coronavirus testing.
Congress already is working on a fifth coronavirus-response bill. Schumer said it could be similar in size to the $2.3-trillion economic stimulus enacted on March 27.
The Senate, which has 100 members, is next scheduled to hold a regular legislative session on May 4.
With each passing week, Washington has confronted a deepening crisis that has prompted Republicans and Democrats to work in a mostly bipartisan way to ease the heavy human and economic toll of a pandemic that has sickened more than 800,000 in the United States and thrown more than 22 million people out of work.
The U.S. economy has been battered as businesses have closed and residents have observed stay-at-home orders.