House Passes Relief for Small Businesses and Aid for Hospitals and Testing

House Passes Relief for Small Businesses and Aid for Hospitals and Testing

WASHINGTON — The House gave resounding approval on Thursday to a $484 billion coronavirus relief package to restart a depleted loan program for distressed small businesses and to provide funds for hospitals and coronavirus testing, and it moved to ramp up oversight of the sprawling federal response to the pandemic.

President Trump said he would quickly sign the measure — the latest installment in a government aid program that is approaching $3 trillion — which passed with broad bipartisan support even as some liberal Democrats condemned it for being too stingy. But the fight over what should be included foreshadowed a pitched partisan battle to come over the next round of federal relief, which is likely to center on aid to states and cities facing dire financial straits.

At the White House, Mr. Trump, who said he was “grateful” that Congress had cleared the bill, said the issue of funding for struggling states was “probably going to be the next thing on the list.”

Even as they dispensed with another nearly half-trillion taxpayer dollars, Democrats were moving to scrutinize the administration’s handling of the funds. Just before the aid package passed, they pushed through a measure creating a special House subcommittee to investigate the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the array of federal spending measures enacted to address it, defying objections from Mr. Trump and Republicans.

“We have our differences, but we are coming together on this particular bill,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appeared on the House floor wearing a cream-colored scarf she used as a face covering on Thursday as she moved around the Capitol, where most lawmakers and staff aides wore masks to guard against spreading the virus. “I’m proud of that. It is bipartisan, it is urgent, and let us get on with it so that we can get on to supporting our heroes in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice.”

The package that passed on Thursday by a vote of 388 to 5 was an interim step after enactment of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law. It emerged from a flurry of negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration after funding lapsed for the Paycheck Protection Program, a small-business loan program created by the stimulus plan that had been overwhelmed by demand the instant it started.

The measure replenished that program, providing $320 billion for it, but at the insistence of Democrats who demanded additional funds and policy changes, it also included $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for testing — plus a mandate that the Trump administration come up with a strategy for helping states deploy and gain access to tests across the country.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, chastised Democrats for what he described as obstruction, saying that “the cruel result is less assistance and more anxiety for workers, families and small businesses.”

“Democrats need to stop the gamesmanship and get back to putting Americans first,” he added.

The vote took place in a House chamber transformed by the pandemic. Most congressional officials and lawmakers covered their faces with blue surgical masks or fabrics in an array of colors, patterns and — in the case of at least one member — glitter.

In between votes that slowed to a crawl to allow for social distancing, more than a dozen staff members wearing orange gloves and masks rushed to clean the chamber with disinfecting sprays and wipes, scrubbing armrests, banisters and microphones before lawmakers returned.

Multiple lawmakers who had previously had to isolate outside Washington after testing positive or being exposed to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, returned to vote. Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, her voice cracking with emotion, said that she was dedicating the bill to her sister, who was dying of the virus in a St. Louis hospital.

Congressional officials and representatives took unusual precautions. Lawmakers filtered through the chamber in smaller groups to cast their votes — prolonging the voting period to about 90 minutes compared with the usual 15 — and boxes of gloves and surgical masks were set outside the chamber doors, which remained open so that those coming and going would not have to touch them. During the debate, a few lawmakers wandered up to the gallery above, typically reserved for the public, to witness the spectacle.

Democratic leaders had initially planned to push through a historic modification to House rules that would allow for remote voting, but they postponed the move amid opposition from Republicans, who have begun clamoring for the chamber to resume business as usual, echoing calls from conservatives around the country.

“I have always believed that whenever possible, any changes to our rules should be bipartisan,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the House Rules Committee, who will examine the issue with other top Republicans and Democrats. “However, the status quo is unacceptable and dangerous, not just to members of Congress, but, more importantly, to everyone we come in contact with.”

Among those taking precautions on the floor was Ms. Pelosi, who carefully wiped down the lectern and removed her scarf from her face each time she delivered remarks. She donned purple latex gloves to carefully write her vote to form the select committee on a green card.

Progressive Democrats voiced strong opposition to the aid package, saying that it was woefully insufficient.

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, said it would have been “indefensible” for Congress to fail to restore funding for the small-business program, “but it’s also indefensible for us not to focus on replenishing the coffers of Americans, and focus on making sure they are able to support paying their rent, making sure that our cities and states aren’t going bankrupt, and making sure that American families aren’t dying of hunger.”

Nearly two dozen liberal groups, including Indivisible and Justice Democrats — the group that helped start the campaign of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York — wrote a letter to House Democrats urging them to stop “unnecessarily giving away leverage that people depend on you to use in order to save lives.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who has said the measure was far too small and should include aid to struggling states and cities, was the sole Democrat who opposed the bill. Four Republicans voted no, while Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, the chamber’s lone independent, voted present.

And while most Republicans supported the bill, many took the opportunity to urge Congress to return to its routine business in Washington and warned that they would not be agreeing to any more huge relief packages negotiated among top Democrats and the administration with little input from rank-and-file lawmakers.

“Today, I’m holding my nose voting for a bill I had no chance to shape,” declared Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas.

“But this is it, Madam Speaker — enough,” he said, adding, “No more half-assed legislating.” (The presiding speaker at the time, Representative Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida, later warned against vulgarity in the chamber.)

Republicans also resisted the creation of the oversight panel, which will have the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, unanimously opposing it in a party-line vote of 212 to 182. The committee is charged with examining the coronavirus relief packages enacted over the past two months, and scrutinizing “preparedness for and response to the coronavirus crisis.” That includes deployment of testing and containment, the distribution of equipment and medical supplies and the development of a treatment.

“We are talking about how this money is spent as we go forward,” Ms. Pelosi said. “This isn’t about assigning blame. This is about taking responsibility.”

Mr. Trump does not see it that way. Last month, when Ms. Pelosi announced she would form the panel, he dismissed it as a partisan “witch hunt.” Republicans fought the committee’s creation, with leaders actively encouraging rank-and-file lawmakers to vote against it on Thursday, and it is unclear whether they will participate.

The panel is to be led by Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, and will have up to six other Democrats, as well as five Republicans.

Mr. McCarthy said on Wednesday that he had told Ms. Pelosi that he considered the committee redundant, and would wait to appoint members until he saw which Democrats she selected.

“This committee will be the only committee weighted politically,” Mr. McCarthy said on Thursday on the floor. “The public does not want to see politics. Why would we waste our time bringing people back to create a political committee?”

The stimulus law enacted last month established a three-pronged structure to oversee the carrying out of the legislation, at the insistence of Democrats who blocked its passage until they could build in accountability measures. Under that law, a special inspector general within the Treasury Department, a committee of inspectors general and a congressional oversight commission are all tasked with examining how the money is spent.

But that oversight has been slow to take shape. Mr. Trump moved to oust the leader of the committee of inspectors general, removing Glenn A. Fine, who had been the acting inspector general for the Defense Department and set to lead the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

As of Friday, the Congressional Oversight Commission had four of its five members, with Ms. Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, yet to announce who will lead it.

Congressional leaders have selected Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts; Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania; Representative French Hill, Republican of Arkansas; and Representative Donna E. Shalala, Democrat of Florida.

Ms. Shalala has faced calls for her resignation from the board after The Miami Herald reported that she failed to properly disclose stock sales in 2019, which she apologized for. But a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi said that Ms. Shalala retained “the speaker’s complete confidence as she works to hold the administration accountable” and that she had been working with the House Ethics Committee to address the issues with her personal investments.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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