Shared from the 3/19/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Trump approves $100B aid package

Relief measure includes free testing and paid sick leave

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Al Drago / Bloomberg

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate is working on “a far bolder package” as legislators weigh a bailout aimed to jolt the economy.

WASHINGTON — Free corona-virus testing is coming to Texas, along with a big boost in Medicaid funding, unemployment insurance for those without work during the pandemic and paid sick leave for up to 3 million Texans.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed a $104 billion relief package aimed at curbing the spread of the virus and slowing its havoc on the economy after it easily cleared the Senate on a 90-8 vote. The House of Representatives passed the measure over the weekend. Both Texas senators and all but six members of Congress from Texas — all Republicans — voted for the legislation, which was the result of lengthy negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House.

While lawmakers say the aid is urgently needed — and has been for days as it lingered in Congress — they also agree it doesn't go nearly far enough, with many pointing to the paid sick leave provision that omits much of the workforce, among other things.

Lawmakers are now crafting an economic stimulus package that could cost up to $1 trillion. The Trump administration and many in Congress are calling for it to include a stipend from the federal government paid directly to some Americans.

“I think we already are on a war footing, and we’ve got to beat this virus,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said. “I just think this is an extraordinary emergency, and we ought to consider everything that would solve the problem, including things I wouldn't ordinarily agree to doing.”

The bill that passed Congress on Wednesday expands family leave, provides meals for the elderly and children, waives work-search requirements for unemployment benefits and more. It also increases the federal matching rate for Medicaid, which could send an extra $2.5 billion to Texas alone, if left in place through the end of the year, according to estimates by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It offers free COVID-19 testing for all Americans, though testing still remains unavailable to many. Cornyn said he expects that to change soon.

“The number of testing kits available is going to dramatically increase very quickly — like by the end of this week, because there’s an ‘all hands on deck’ moment here in terms of producing testing,” he said.

Lawmakers are describing it as the second of three steps Congress is taking in combating the virus, though more action could follow. The first was an $8.3 billion bill that Trump signed earlier this month to reimburse states for costs — such as caring for and quarantining patients from cruise ships at military facilities in San Antonio — and jumpstart work on vaccines.

Next up is the stimulus package, which could include bailouts for industries, including airlines and oil and gas.

But the latest bill to make it through Congress has some big gaps.

As much as 40 percent of the Texas workforce — 4.3 million workers — lacks paid sick leave, according to at least one study, done in March 2017 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Some of the nation’s biggest employers — and those employing low-income and hourly workers seen most at risk, such as fast food chains, grocery stores and other big retailers — don’t offer paid leave now.

The legislation only requires companies with fewer than 500 employees to offer two weeks of paid sick leave. It allows the U.S. Department of Labor to exempt some companies with fewer than 50 employees, as well.

That leaves out many Texas employees. Just over 3 million work for the companies that would be required to offer leave, though many of them likely already provide that benefit.

Republicans pushed back on the paid sick leave provision with some, including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of San Antonio, saying their offices had been flooded by calls and letters from businesses and industry groups warning it could wreak havoc on them. Businesses have to front the cost and would be reimbursed by the government under the new requirements, which are temporary.

“This is literally the worst time in memory to pile more costs on small businesses,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “unless we back it up with major assistance.”

McConnell said the Senate is working on “a far bolder package” that would include “an historic injection of liquidity and access to credit” for businesses.

And while some Democrats had hoped the next package would expand sick leave to all workers, lawmakers appear to be quickly moving on to other matters — and are instead looking at sending checks directly to many Americans.

“The most expensive — and maybe in the end the most significant — help we could do is provide in this third bill those expedited payments to folks who are out of work,” Cornyn said.

Nearly all agree stipends are the next step.

“This is about promoting the general welfare, and it is something that’s constitutional and it’s expected in a time of crisis like this,” U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat, said. “This is what the government is for.”

The stipend idea has received a warm reception even from conservative Texas Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Roy of San Antonio and Dan Crenshaw of Houston. Who gets those checks and how much they might be is another matter.

“I will be pushing for cash payments to every American adult in the amount of $3,000 and $1,500 per child, which will total approximately $800 billion,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee tweeted.

The White House has floated sending as much as $2,000 to many Americans, depending on their income. Republicans have stressed the payments need to be targeted.

“This is not a blank check,” Cornyn said. “I think it should have conditions, and it should get the money to people who are not receiving income now.” ben.wermund@chron.com

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