U.S. Congress passes COVID-19 relief package to aid small businesses, hospitals


U.S. Congress on Thursday passed a 484-billion-dollar relief package to boost funding for small businesses, hospitals and virus testing, as the country continues to grapple with a COVID-19 fallout.

The House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 388-5, two days after the Senate swiftly cleared the legislation in a voice vote, sending the bill to President Donald Trump for signature.

“At this time when many Americans are enduring significant economic challenges, this bill will help small businesses and keep millions of workers on the payroll,” Trump said at a White House briefing Thursday.

The package will provide more than 310 billion dollars in additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to boost small business lending, as well as 75 billion dollars for hospitals and 25 billion dollars for virus testing.

Congressional Democrats reached an agreement with the Trump administration on the package earlier this week following days of intense negotiations.

The new package, the fourth COVID-19 relief bill approved by Congress, came as the coronavirus continues to sweep the nation, with the death toll still rising and the economy devastated.

As of Thursday, over 860,000 cases have been confirmed and over 49,000 deaths reported across the country, according to a data-tracking tool developed by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said there has been progress in bending the curve. “If you look at seven-day reporting, we are starting to go down. We have a long flat peak, largely driven of course by New York,” she said at the briefing.

Meanwhile, newly released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 4.4 million Americans filed jobless claims last week, bringing the five-week total to more than 26 million, as businesses, especially small ones, struggle to retain their employees.

“Historic, tragic layoffs continue to pile up nationwide. This pandemic has erased a decade of job creation in just over one month,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Twitter.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, went on to blame Democrats for having made the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) “lapse.”

The program, designed to provide loans for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll during the COVID-19 outbreak, ran out of money last week. In a previously approved 2.2-trillion-dollar relief package, 349 billion dollars had been allocated to fund the PPP.

About 80 percent of PPP applicants said they are still waiting, while many do not know where they are in the application process, according to a survey released Monday by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Calling the new bill “an interim emergency funding package,” Democratic leaders have said they are disappointed that the administration has not agreed to more funding for state, tribal and local governments on the front lines of this crisis who desperately need an infusion of funds to pay essential workers.

In a joint statement earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had pledged to advance a larger bill, which could include another round of direct payments to households as well as more aid to state and local governments.

Before voting on the relief package Thursday, the House also approved a Democratic-majority select subcommittee to oversee the Trump administration’s use of the 500-billion-dollar aid for corporations, states and municipalities. Enditem

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