U.S. House OKs $484B in new coronavirus relief funds

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., second from right, walks off the House floor on Thursday. (Andrew Harnik/AP photo via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House of Representatives on Thursday sent to President Donald Trump’s desk a $484 billion package that pours hundreds of billions of dollars into a federal small business loan program and sets aside money for hospitals and testing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure passed the House 388-5 on Thursday evening, after a more than one-hour vote. In order to maintain social distancing during the vote, members were called to the chamber in alphabetical groups rather than descending on the floor en masse.

This left the normally rowdy House floor sparsely populated, as members did not congregate and chat in large groups as the vote went on. Many wore facemasks during the vote, though many took them off or did not wear them during the hours of speeches leading up to passing the bill.

At the core of the $484 billion package is $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which gives small businesses loans that can be forgiven if companies use them to cover payroll or certain expenses like rent and utilities.

Meant to help keep small businesses viable with workers on their payrolls during state-ordered closures, the program last week ran out of the $350 billion it originally received. During the two weeks it was operation, the program approved 1.6 million loans, with 74% for less than $150,000.

There has been widespread outrage, however, over larger companies receiving loans under the program. An investigation from the Associated Press found at least 94 publicly traded companies received loans for a total of $365 million.

The bill comes less than a month after Congress approved the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which created the Paycheck Protection Program along with other economic initiatives such as direct payments to most Americans.

Meeting demands from the White House, Republicans initially sought to add $250 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program on its own, but Democrats blocked that measure as they held out for additional money for hospitals, state and local governments and a national testing program.

The resulting package, which came together after extensive negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats, includes $75 billion in payments to hospitals and other health care providers and $25 billion for a testing program, $11 billion of which will go to state and local governments.

In addition, the bill includes $10 billion in additional funding for the Emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, a separate federal loan program that has also been tapped dry during the pandemic.

Republicans blasted Democrats for not agreeing to the original Republican-led plan even as record numbers of people file for unemployment and businesses shutter across the country.

“How many of those 4.4 million would not have gotten a pink slip last week, had we listened more than two weeks ago on April 7 when we said the program we created that was so successful that was able to do the number of loans in 14 days that it took the [Small Business Administration] to do in 14 years, that there was such a need out there that maybe we would overcome politics for that one moment,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Thursday.

Democrats point to the additional money for hospitals and a testing program as victories, saying more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program would not have been enough on its own. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also noted the bill includes a provision Democrats pushed for that sets aside $60 billion in the new Paycheck Protection Program funding specifically for smaller banks to ensure businesses that might not have relationships with larger institutions can still take advantage of the program.

Pelosi said the bill would have come to the floor earlier if Republicans had been quicker to open negotiations with Democrats and accepted the additional money for hospitals and testing Democrats demanded.

“What we have on the floor today is a result of — not time that we delayed the legislation, but the time that the Republicans refused to accept the fact that we needed $100 billion for our hospitals and our testing,” Pelosi said Thursday.

The bill is the fourth Congress has passed related to the coronavirus outbreak, but Democrats are already pushing for another round of legislation. Pelosi said any additional measure should be focused on frontline health care workers and first responders and faulted Republicans for not allowing that into the package that passed Thursday.

The bill now goes to President Trump’s desk. Trump has signaled he will sign the legislation, potentially as soon as Thursday.