The US Senate late on Wednesday unanimously passed the nation’s largest-ever rescue package, a US$2 trillion lifeline to suffering Americans, critically depleted hospitals and an economy ravaged by a rapidly spreading COVID-19 crisis.
The measure cleared the Senate 96-0 after days of tumultuous, sometimes bitter negotiations and debate, as the US death toll for the pandemic soared.
Outbreaks have grown nationwide, but with particular fear that New York City could be the next epicenter of the pandemic.
“Let us tell them tonight that help is on the way, that they are not truly alone; that this country, that this Senate, that this government is here for them in a time of dire need,” US Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, said moments before the vote. “Let us marshal this government into action.”
The measure heads to the US House of Representatives, where a Democratic leader said that he expected it to pass by voice vote today, before it goes to US President Donald Trump for his signature.
Second-ranking House Republican Steve Scalise was urging his fellow Republicans to vote to pass the package, his communications director said.
The monster package, thrashed out between Republicans, Democrats and the White House, provides direct cash payments to millions of hurting American taxpayers, amounting to US$3,400 for an average family of four.
It provides about US$500 billion in grants and loans to small businesses and core industries, including as much as US$50 billion for strained airlines and their employees.
It also provides US$100 billion of desperately needed resources for hospitals and other health facilities in dire need of medical equipment, and dramatically expands unemployment benefits to help workers sickened by the coronavirus or laid off during the crisis.
The US has the third-highest number of infections globally behind China and Italy — about half are in the state of New York.
“We still have the trajectory going up,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, adding that about 12 percent of the people who test positive require hospitalization.
Health officials anticipate that about 120,000 coronavirus patients would need treatment in New York’s hospitals, which have a capacity of 50,000 beds, Cuomo said.
The intensity of the crisis caught the Trump administration by surprise, and by Wednesday, the president and his top Cabinet members were demanding that the Senate quicken the pace and pass the legislation.
“We need to get this money into the American economy and [to] American workers,” US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said.
Birmingham, Alabama, and Charlotte, North Carolina, have become the latest major US cities to order residents to stay indoors.
“The Senate just pivoted from one of the most divided periods in recent memory to passing the largest rescue package in American history,” US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Twitter.
It dwarfs the bailouts of 2008, when a worldwide financial crisis sent the US economy into a tailspin.
With infections rising, the injection for hospitals could be the bill’s most effective element in fighting the pandemic, as it will help facilities provide protective gear, intensive care beds, and ventilators and other medical equipment.
On Wednesday, Trump said on Twitter that four hospitals being built in New York with federal assistance “are moving along very well, ahead of schedule.”
On Tuesday, he said that social distancing had caused too much pain to the economy, adding that he wanted the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
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