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Massive Coronavirus Aid Bill Passes Senate

After days of heated rhetoric on both sides, the Senate has voted unanimously (96-0) to approve a $2 trillion-plus, 880-page, coronavirus aid bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that will provide hundreds of billions of dollars to businesses big and small and to laid-off workers in the form of "unemployment on steroids" and to others in the form of direct payments. 

It must still be voted by the House and signed by the President. 

The bill, which was hammered out in negotiations among Congressional Democrats, Republicans and the White House, includes money for the self-employed and contract workers, so covers performers whose productions have shuttered or whose concert venues and theaters have closed. 

Defeated was an amendment offered by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and voted for by most Republicans, that would have reduced the additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits that he and other conservative senators called a drafting error and said would be an incentive to lay off some workers who could then make more money not working than they did working.

The President said earlier in the day that the price tag for the bill was $2.2 trillion, which he said was "certainly, in terms of dollars, by far and away the biggest ever, ever done. And that's a tremendous thing because a lot of this money goes to jobs, jobs, jobs, and families, families, families."  

The bill includes $350 billion in job-retention loans for small businesses, loans that will be forgiven if the businesses use them to continue to pay their workers.  It also waives payments for small businesss with an existing loan from the Small Business Administration, according to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who fought for the provision.

The small business benefits portion, according in to Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.):

· "authorizes main street lending at the Federal Reserve to be leveraged up to $4 trillion, 

· "allows small businesses to delay paying payroll taxes, 

· "provides $350 billion in guaranteed Small Business Administration loans for businesses and non-profits with 500 or fewer employees, including those who are self-employed or part of the gig economy, allowing funds to pay employee salaries, wages, cash tips, sick leave, employee group health care benefits and insurance premiums, retirement contributions and covered leave, 

· "offers loans immediately and would waive affiliation rules for small businesses in the hospitality and restaurant industries, certain franchises and businesses receiving financing through the Small Business Investment Company program and 

· "waives the early withdrawal penalty for qualified retirement accounts up to $100,000 for reasons related to the coronavirus."

Direct cash payments to workers will total $350 billion. 

Up to $250 billion will go for expanded unemployment benefits. The "average" worker who has lost their job due to the pandemic will get up to four months of 100% of their salary, including those independent contractors and the self-employed. 

Over $500 billion will go to the hardest hit industries--airlines, for example--but with a ban on corporate stock buybacks. The President also said it has "tough" new limits on executive compensation, which both Republicans and Democrats wanted, though Democrats argue they wanted them more. 

Over $100 billion will go to doctors, nurses and hospitals, $45 billion for disaster relief, and $27 billion to build a stockpile of masks, respirators, drugs and other supplies, as well as vaccine development. 

It also sends $150 billion in aide to state and local governments.

Democrats had sought to cancel up to $30,000 of student debt, but the bill simply suspends payments for six months without penalty.

The bill includes $75 million for public broadcasting stations to deal with declining sustaining revenue--the vast majority of noncom budgets come from pledges and corporate sponsorship.

"While even $75 million only begins to address these unprecedented needs while private revenues are plummeting," said America's Public Television Stations president Patrick Butler. "We are grateful for the broad support for this emergency funding for public media among both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. We will do our best with the resources we have to serve our country and our fellow citizens in this time of shared crisis.”

Sen. Ed Markey called the bill massive and historic, but less than perfect, pointing to the lack of sufficient broadband funding, which some including Markey had pushed for. "[T]his package neglected to address funding for vital needs right now such as closing the homework gap and protecting low-income students, nor to protect emergency spectrum for our first responders."

But that appears to be a fight for another day. “This will not be the last relief package that our families, workers, and economy will need as this pandemic grows," said Markey.

It does have a relatively small $25 million for remote learning and telemedicine programs, according to Sen. Kennedy.

While the Senate will not hold another official session until April 20, it will hold pro-forma sessions--to guard against recess appointments for one thing--and be ready to return before that if need be, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“This legislation is critical to the U.S. economy during this crisis, and will give crucial support to American families, as well as businesses that have been hit the hardest due to the coronavirus," said tech Jason Oxman, president of tech trade group ITI. "We’re glad Congressional leadership and the Trump Administration were able to come to an agreement, and we urge quick action by the House. We hope subsequent COVID-19 relief legislation includes additional measures to support response efforts and the nation’s future resilience in a crisis, including funding for secure teleworking for federal agencies, critical infrastructure, network cybersecurity, expanded broadband access, and measures that help federal ICT contractors carry out their missions during this crisis and beyond.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, called the bill "a rescue operation for the American people," and urged the House to pass it ASAP.

 “Today the Senate took an important step to provide critical assistance to American businesses and families in this time of need," said Cinnamon Rogers, EVP at CompTIA. "This bill provides critical emergency funding programs to keep businesses up and running and most importantly, aids the healthcare sector to effectively help end this crisis. 

“As the leading association representing the IT sector, we especially appreciate the inclusion of $350 billion in loans to support small businesses. The U.S. IT sector is made up almost entirely of small and medium-sized businesses with fewer than 100 employees, more than 430,000 in all. These businesses provide the technology that keeps millions of others operating efficiently and securely, an especially vital function during this challenging time."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.