May 16, 2020 1:43 AM

House approves new $3T coronavirus relief bill

Posted May 16, 2020 1:43 AM
Moments after the U.S. House passed a new $3 trillion coronavirus aid package, which includes money for state and local governments, coronavirus testing, and cash payments to individuals. Members will also take up a House rules change to allow proxy voting-image courtesy CSPAN
Moments after the U.S. House passed a new $3 trillion coronavirus aid package, which includes money for state and local governments, coronavirus testing, and cash payments to individuals. Members will also take up a House rules change to allow proxy voting-image courtesy CSPAN

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats powered a massive $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill through the House on Friday, an election-year measure designed to brace a U.S. economy in free fall and a health care system struggling to contain a pandemic still pummeling the country.

The 208-199 vote, over strong Republican opposition, advances what boils down to a campaign-season display of Democratic economic and health-care priorities. It has no chance of becoming law as written, but will likely spark difficult negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans. Any product would probably be the last major COVID-19 response bill before November’s presidential and congressional elections.

The enormous Democratic measure would cost more than the prior four coronavirus bills combined. It would deliver almost $1 trillion for state and local governments, another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals and help for the unemployed, renters and homeowners, college debt holders and the struggling Postal Service.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her news conference Thursday
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her news conference Thursday

“Not to act now is not only irresponsible in a humanitarian way, it is irresponsible because it’s only going to cost more,” warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”

Republicans mocked the bill as a bloated Democratic wish-list that was dead on arrival in the GOP-led Senate and, for good measure, faced a White House veto threat. Party leaders say they want to assess how $3 trillion approved earlier is working and see if some states’ partial business reopenings would spark an economic revival that would ease the need for more safety net programs.

Republicans are also sorting through internal divisions and awaiting stronger signals from President Donald Trump about what he will support.

“Phase Four is going to happen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, using Washington insider-speak for the measure. “But it’s going to happen in a much better way for the American people.”

Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are insisting the next measure should protect reopening businesses from liability lawsuits. The president is also demanding a cut to payroll taxes, but GOP leaders are not yet onboard.

The daylong debate painted a Capitol scene that’s become common in the era of coronavirus, even as it remains disconcerting. The sparsely populated House floor was dotted with lawmakers and aides wearing protective masks and even gloves, though some Republicans lacked them.

Many members looked shaggier and sported beards they had not worn weeks ago. Roll call votes lasted over an hour each because lawmakers were voting in small groups to limit crowding.

To enhance the bill’s political impact, Democrats named their measure “The Heroes Act” for the payments it would provide front-line emergency workers. With more than 86,000 Americans dead, 1.4 million confirmed infections and 36 million filing unemployment claims in an frozen economy, Democrats saw GOP opposition as an easy campaign-season target.

“Are you kidding me?” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, of Republican assertions that it was time to stop spending more money. “Where do you guys live? Food lines at our food banks around the block? In the United States of America?”

Republicans saw the bill as a Democratic political blunder. They said overly generous unemployment benefits discouraged people from returning to work, and attacked language helping immigrants in the U.S. illegally get federal benefits. They also singled out provisions helping states set up voting by mail and easing the marijuana industry’s access to banks.

“It may help the cannabis industry, but it won’t help Main Street,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Clearly, the bipartisan consensus that produced four previous coronavirus bills is crumbling quickly. Polls show GOP voters are satisfied with the federal response and aren’t agitating for more. Self-branded deficit hawks are citing the massive increase in the spiraling $25 trillion national debt.

Some congressional aides said the Democratic bill’s real price tag could breach $3.5 trillion. A partial estimate of tax provisions alone revealed eye-popping costs: $412 billion to renew $1,200 cash payments to individuals, more than $100 billion to pay health insurance premiums for the unemployed and $164 billion to make an “employee retention” tax credit for businesses more generous.

Republicans leaders faced disunity between conservatives who feel enough has been done and pragmatists who back rescuing the Postal Service from looming insolvency and delivering cash to revenue-starved state and local governments. The huge price tag and a lack of consultation with Republicans by Pelosi cemented GOP opposition.

“This bill is nothing more than the Democratic policy agenda masquerading as a response to the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. He said the bill is “going nowhere, and is going nowhere fast.”

Pelosi overcame party divisions of her own. Some moderate Democrats opposed the package for its price tag and politically fraught provisions like assisting marijuana businesses. A few progressive Democrats were upset because it did not do more, such as guaranteeing workers’ salaries and bolstering their health insurance coverage.

Those for whom the vote was most politically risky were the 30, mostly freshmen, from House districts that backed Trump in 2016. One, Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, labeled the measure “bloated” and said she’d vote no.

Liberal Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters that she’d also oppose the bill. She said if constituents ask her if the bill would put money in their pockets or preserve their health care, “I can’t tell them yes.”

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May 16, 2020 1:43 AM
Pandemic casualty: JC Penney to close 240 stores

NEW YORK (AP) — J.C. Penney will close almost 30% of its 846 stores as part of a restructuring under bankruptcy protection. The ailing department store said Monday that it plans to close about 192 stores by February 2021, and then 50 additional stores in the year after that.

That would leave the company with just over 600 locations. J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy reorganization on Friday, making it the biggest retailer to do since the coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut down all stores.

The company has not released a list of stores that will close.

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NEW YORK (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic has pushed troubled department store chain J.C. Penney into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It is the fourth major retailer to meet that fate. Texas-based Penney said late Friday it will be reducing its store count and will be disclosing details and timing in the next few weeks.

It currently operates 850 stores and employs nearly 90,000 workers. It said that it received $900 million in financing to help it operate during the restructuring. Penney joins luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus and J.Crew in filing for bankruptcy reorganization. Others are expected to follow. Still many experts are pessimistic about Penney’s long-term survival.

Check the Post for additional details, as they become available on how the bankruptcy impacts local stores.

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U.S. retail sales tumbled by a record 16.4% from March to April as business shutdowns caused by the coronavirus kept shoppers away, threatened stores across the country and weighed down a sinking economy.

The Commerce Department’s report on retail purchases showed a sector that has collapsed so quickly that sales over the past 12 months are down a crippling 21.6%. The sharpest drops from March to April were at clothiers, electronics stores, furniture stores and restaurants.

A long-standing migration of consumers toward online purchases is accelerating, with that segment posting a 8.4% monthly gain. Measured year over year, online sales surged 21.6%.