Paid Sick Leave Bill to Combat Coronavirus Hits a Snag—Senate Republicans

As the coronavirus pandemic increasingly upends daily life across the globe and exacerbates fears of an economic recession in the United States, a stimulus bill that would require some companies to provide their employees with paid sick leave has come to a grinding halt in the Senate.

Despite the bipartisan legislation passing overwhelmingly in the House early Saturday morning with the blessing of President Donald Trump, disagreements among Senate Republicans on Monday left the measure hanging in limbo.

"I don't agree with everything 100 percent. But you know what, we need to do something right away," Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of leadership, told Newsweek. "We know that we're going to have people out of work, and we need to make sure that they're getting relief."

The issue for Republicans is centered on whether small- and medium-sized businesses with less than 500 employees would face further economic strain for having to potentially provide two weeks of paid sick leave and months of paid family and medical leave. The tax credits offered to companies to help offset the costs would be too little too late, some GOP senators contend.

"I feel urgency to get it done right," said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). "Most small businesses are not going to have lines of credit, they aren't going to be in a position to where they can weather it."

"They will go bankrupt if we force them to advance sick leave with no revenue whatsoever," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on the Senate floor. He said rather than "create a complicated new system" where some people may be left out, existing systems—instant tax refunds or rebates and welfare programs, like unemployment insurance—should be used to get money into American's pockets more expeditiously.

A similar solution to fight against layoffs could be to expand and tap into state unemployment funds, suggested Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). He argued that expanding paid sick leave and family or medical leave would act as a double-edged sword because while it might slow the spread of coronavirus, it will "incentivize people to stay home" and have "devastating effects on our economy." The public is being urged to remain at home as much as possible, with governors and mayors in several states and cities forcing bars and restaurants to close.

"There's going be a cash crunch at some point in time, if this thing continues," Johnson said. "These are unprecedented times. It's going to require unprecedented action, but let's make sure we target specific problems and not certain things that are just not necessary."

coronavirus stimulus package hits snag Senate Republicans
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to the media following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon where Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and members of the coronavirus task force briefed senators on March 3 in Washington, DC. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty

Businesses larger than 500 employees being excluded from the paid sick leave requirement was not included in the bill until after Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Republicans became involved in negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week. It's a portion of the proposal that several Senate Republicans have taken issue with and that President Donald Trump on Monday suggested they might change.

"Why would you put that mandate on smaller employers?" Johnson questioned.

White House Legislative Director Eric Ueland and Mnuchin met with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill Monday evening in an effort to steer lawmakers toward supporting the legislation without amendments and to begin discussing future stimulus proposals that Congress is expected to consider in the coming days and weeks.

Ueland expressed confidence that Republican senators will get on board with the bill after technical corrections regarding the bill's implementation of tax credits for the paid sick leave were approved by the House Monday night and will allow the Senate to pass it as early as Tuesday.

"We understand and have been working with members who have concerns, questions and recommendations and suggestions about things to do here," Ueland told reporters. "But again, we are very interested in action on the House package."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn't tip his hand as to when and how they'll address the paid sick leave legislation. "I know that all of us are eager to act quickly to support American workers, families and small businesses," he said on the chamber floor.

The president has also thrown a wrench into the mix. At the White House earlier in the day, Trump signaled that the Senate won't accept the relief legislation as written and will make changes. "We may go back and forth with the House," he told reporters.

Trump coronavirus press conference
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House on March 16 in Washington, DC. The United States has surpassed 3,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19, and the death toll climbed to at least 61, with 25 of the deaths associated with the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

If the Senate does end up amending the House bill, it could delay its passage by Congress because the House is on recess this week and potentially next week. Democratic leaders would need to call lawmakers back to Washington to pass any revamped version, a notion House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has warned members could come to fruition.

Added to that was the suggestion by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that with Americans being told to hunker down in place and avoid traveling, particularly air travel, Congress may no longer be able to meet on a regular basis. Many of its members are senior citizens and are most at-risk of catching the virus.

"With the orders that are out there, what might happen with airlines or travel schedules, with individual members having to go into quarantine for being exposed, I don't think we can operate as if we can just bring the Senate and the House back together whenever we want," Rubio said.

Others GOP senators, like Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), remained on the fence with the paid sick leave stimulus package.

"I want to discuss with my colleagues and other economists," he said. "I didn't expect a perfect bill to come over from the House of Representatives and we don't have a perfect bill."

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties have said they need to act swiftly to address additional economic stimulus packages, such as relief for the travel industry and small businesses. The details of such proposals will continue to be ironed out in the coming days, with input from all sides being interjected.

For example, the Trump administration has shown a willingness to boost the airline and cruise industries, Senate Democrats have unveiled a $750 billion stimulus plan and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has suggested that "every American adult" should receive $1,000.

"This is not like the financial meltdown where you had banks that made bad decisions and asked the government to bail them out," Rubio said. "We are asking—we are begging—people not to go out, not to go shopping, not to go to restaurants, not to go to bars and clubs and not to take trips. We are imposing restrictions—rightfully so—and there is an economic cost associated with that."

Correction: A previous photo caption in this story identified Mitch McConnell as a Democrat. He is a Republican.