WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly cleared the way on Friday to push ahead with a $3 trillion Democratic bill that would double the amount of aid approved by Congress to ease the human and economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats crafted the far-reaching legislation to help state and local governments and others reeling from a pandemic that has killed more than 85,000 Americans and shut down much of the economy. Senate Republicans say it will be “dead on arrival” in their chamber.
But – with Republicans united in opposition – it barely cleared a procedural vote to pave the way for debate. The vote was 207-199, with 14 Democrats joining Republicans to vote no.
The House measure, called the HEROES act, includes $500 billion in aid to state governments, another round of direct payments to individuals and families to help stimulate the economy, and hazard pay to healthcare workers and others on the front line of the pandemic.
If passed, it would double the amount of spending Congress has authorized since March to fight the coronavirus.
Republicans said they wanted to wait and see how the previous $3 trillion in coronavirus relief works out – and insisted that protections for corporations against lawsuits must be a priority in any new legislation, something pushed for by Republican President Donald Trump.
Democrats who opposed the bill, many of them moderates, said they would have preferred to negotiate something with Republicans that could pass with bipartisan support.
“In the face of this crisis, (my constituents) expect our government to work together quickly to provide real relief for those who need it most,” said Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger, who represents a Virginia district that backed then-Republican candidate Trump in 2016.
Every Republican in the Democratic-controlled House voted no.
“It’s more like a liberal Christmas card wish list,” Representative Tom Cole said during debate on the bill on Friday. “This bill is going nowhere, and nowhere fast.”
Some 36.5 million people – or more than one in five workers – in the United States have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.
Democrats argued Americans desperately need the relief. “I don’t give a damn about sending a message. I want to send help to those in desperate need,” said Representative James McGovern, citing long lines at food pantries around the country.
Highlighting the economic fallout, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California, the country’s most populous state, on Thursday proposed deep government spending cuts and warned of further reductions without more aid from Congress.
“That’s the purpose of the federal government – to protect us,” he said.
Friday’s votes brought about 400 House members back to Washington for only the third time since late March. The session was governed by social distancing and other protective measures so the House does not become a breeding ground for the illness it is trying to battle.
Given Republican opposition, Pelosi’s gambit might spark a new round of negotiations on further relief among the Republican-controlled Senate, the House and the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday he was open to another coronavirus relief bill and was talking to members of Trump’s administration about possible legislation. But he declined to say in an interview with Fox News when his party might start negotiating such a bill.
Besides the coronavirus bill, the House will also try to pass a measure that would allow members for the first time to cast votes in the chamber by proxy during the pandemic.
Many Republicans also oppose that measure, saying it was essential that lawmakers vote in person in the House.
Pelosi said she did not know when the House would resume regular sessions, noting that Washington’s city government had pushed back its shelter-in-place order to June 8. “I would hope it wouldn’t be any longer than that,” she told reporters.
Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California, and Patricia Zengerle, Lisa Lambert and Mohammad Zargham in Washington; Writing by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Paul Simao