Republicans delay coronavirus bill even after paid sick leave was reduced to just 20% of workers

Several lawmakers stalled an emergency coronavirus relief bill even though Trump has backed the legislation

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 16, 2020 4:25PM (EDT)

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) speaks during a House hearing. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) speaks during a House hearing. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Several Republican lawmakers stalled an emergency coronavirus relief bill even though President Donald Trump has backed the legislation.

Republicans delayed the bill, which would provide free COVID-19 testing and paid sick leave among other items, last week over concerns about the paid leave provision and a demand that anti-abortion language be added to the bill. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ultimately agreed to only include about 20% of workers in the bill, which does not require corporations like Amazon or McDonald's to provide any paid sick leave for their workers.

The changes prompted a show of public support from Trump on Twitter, but the measure was once again stalled.

The House of Representatives must first approve technical fixes to the bill's paid sick leave provision, but the process is being blocked by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Gohmert insists that the bill be read on the floor, which would require the House to return from recess and vote again. As long as Gohmert blocks the bill from being approved by unanimous consent, the Senate cannot vote on it.

House Republican leaders said they were trying to figure out a way forward with Gohmert and other members who oppose the bill.

"If they want to object, that's their right," but "we're trying to walk them off the rope," a member of the House Republican leadership team told Fox News.

A House aide also told Fox that it would be a "major health issue" to force lawmakers to fly back to Washington from recess.

"Hell, the Senate shouldn't be here now either," the aide said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., canceled this week's scheduled recess to focus on the coronavirus relief package, but the bill's fate remains unclear even if the House is able to send the bill to the upper chamber.

The Trump administration pushed for further changes in the bill, according to Politico, and at least some Senate Republicans are still unhappy with the paid sick leave provision, NBC News reported. 

"Of course, senators will need to carefully review the version just passed by the House," McConnell said Saturday, "but I believe the vast majority of senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families and small businesses."

"Although mandating that all employers must pay for sick leave might sound good, we need to consider the unintended consequences of this legislation," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said in a statement. "I fear that rather than offering a workable solution, the House bill will exacerbate the problem by forcing small businesses to pay wages they cannot afford and 'helping' them go further into debt."

The paid sick leave provision is primarily aimed at companies between 50 and 500 workers. The bill would allow companies with fewer than 50 employees to seek hardship exemptions.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., predicted on Fox News that the bill would not pass through the Senate in its current form.

"We worry that the bill setting up a new and complicated system relying on businesses giving paid sick leave and then getting a refundable tax credit that won't move quickly enough and could put pressure on those businesses to lay workers off," he said.

Republicans have been negligent in taking a three-day weekend and further delaying emergency relief, Democrats said.

"It was disgraceful that Leader McConnell left town last night," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Saturday. "We could have had this done already, but he left."

The frustration among Democrats continued to build after some Senate Republicans balked at the paid sick leave provision even after Pelosi created extensive exemptions in the bill. The New York Times editorial board skewered Republicans and Democrats for gutting the provision.

"The White House and congressional Republicans, who insisted on the exemptions as the price of bipartisan support for the legislation, bear the primary responsibility for the indefensible decision to prioritize corporate profits in the midst of a public health emergency," the board said. "But House Democrats also failed to act in the public interest. Paying sick workers to stay at home is both good policy and good politics. Why not pass a bill that required all employers to provide paid sick leave and then force Republicans to explain their objections to the public?"

Some Democrats also expressed hope that Congress would revisit the issue to extend paid sick leave protections.

"While this will help millions, millions are still left out," Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., said. "So I will build on these programs. It should not — and must not — take a pandemic to get working people the economic relief and stability they need."

But most Democrats want Senate Republicans to pass the bill already agreed to by members in the lower chamber and the White House.

"It's Republicans in both the House and the Senate that are holding things up," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., urged the "Senate must act swiftly" to pass the urgent relief bill.

"Our bill ensures free testing, establishes paid sick leave, & strengthens food assistance," he said. "Americans cannot afford to wait any longer for this critical relief package."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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