‘Much of it was junk’: Trump, Pelosi claim credit for beating back bad ideas in coronavirus stimulus

WASHINGTON – To hear President Donald Trump tell it, the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus stimulus he signed into law was in shambles until he got involved, loaded up with “junk” Democrats wanted that wouldn’t have done much to jump start the economy. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been making a similar argument, suggesting Senate Republicans’ initial proposal was a corporate giveaway saved only by political “jujitsu” to place the emphasis on helping American workers

Robbed of the benefit of time and forced to appear generous in their negotiations during a national crisis, both sides are eager to frame the stimulus they know will be unpopular with some constituents – even if it does stave off a major economic meltdown. While the particulars are different, the message is the same: It could have been worse if the other side had gotten its way.

“We were literally going to have to walk away and start all over again they had so much junk in there and it was junk,” Trump told Fox News on Monday. “Much of it was junk.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 29, 2020.

Republicans and Democrats, in fact, agreed on the major provisions of the stimulus: Direct payments for families, a historic expansion of unemployment benefits, loans and grants to businesses large and small – all in an effort to avoid a catastrophic economic collapse that some economists have predicted could rival the Great Depression.

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The measure passed with wide bipartisan margins in both chambers and Trump rapidly signed the measure into law on Friday. Ever since then, both sides have been touting not only their victories but also accentuating the parts of the initial drafts they thought were fundamentally flawed.  

“We did jujitsu,” Pelosi told reporters. “It went from a corporate-first proposal that the Republicans put forth in the Senate to a Democratic worker-first legislation.”

Here’s a look at some of the provisions that both sides jettisoned: 

What Republicans beat back

► Trump and other Republicans accused Democrats of trying to slip a “Green New Deal” into the stimulus. While that’s a stretch – the bill never included a wholesale approach to climate change – it is true that some Democrats sought environmental provisions in the measure.

Chief among them: Requiring airlines to lower carbon emissions. 

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House language would have made payments to airline companies contingent on their willingness to cut emissions in half over the next three decades. Air travel makes up roughly 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions. Another measure pushed by Democrats set aside $100 million to develop sustainable aviation fuels.  

► Trump has repeatedly accused Democrats of trying to change voting laws through the coronavirus bill. The Democrats had pushed for same-day voter registration requirements and requiring states to have at least 15 days of early voting. Their initial bill set aside $4 billion to help states pull off elections during the pandemic. 

Republicans started with a much small smaller proposed grant for elections, about $140 million. The final bill signed by Trump included $400 million. The other mandates were dropped, and Pelosi said Democrats would attempt to pursue them later. 

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► Democrats had sought a major infusion of cash for the U.S. Postal Service, which is considered an “essential” business but which may suffer during the pandemic as fewer businesses send mail. The Democratic proposal would have set aside $25 billion over two years to the struggling Postal Service while wiping way $11 billion in debt that has been a major challenge for the independent entity for years.

The stimulus Trump signed into law eliminated most of that money. Instead, the measure will allow USPS to borrow another $10 billion from the U.S. Treasury. Democrats, including Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, have argued that the Postal Service could have to close its doors as early as June without more help. 

What Democrats beat back

► Republicans attached few strings to the billions of dollars they were proposing for large corporations, including the airline industry. Democrats, recalling the controversial stock buybacks and corporate bonuses paid out following the 2009 stimulus bill, insisted that wouldn’t happen again. Trump eventually came around the idea, ultimately acknowledging he would be fine if the bill prohibited measures to raise stock prices. 

Southwest Airlines planes are loaded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Feb. 5, 2019.

Democrats also pushed back on what they saw as a lack of oversight in the massive spending measure. They pushed for and won a special inspector general in charge of overseeing the Treasury Department’s handling of loans, loan guarantees and other financial lifelines to the airlines and other industries, as well as a congressional oversight panel. However, Trump said he would ignore oversight provisions upon signing the measure.

“There was this idea that they put forth that there’d be a $50 billion slush fund for the Secretary of Treasury with no accountability whatsoever?” Pelosi said. “Are you kidding?”

► Democrats ripped what they saw as meager treatment of the newly unemployed in the initial GOP bill. So they worked in a provision to boost unemployment insurance by $600 per week for four months. The package also extends how long Americans can receive the payments.

Some GOP senators vehemently objected to the boost, describing it as a “drafting error” and arguing it would encourage people to stay unemployed because they could make more money out of work than on the job. But Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin quickly shot down that line of argument, asserting that the administration wanted “enhanced” benefits and that the plan was “the only way we could assure that the money gets out quickly in a fair way.”

► Democrats also rejected payments to states and hospitals that they viewed as inadequate. Republicans wanted to put aside $75 billion for hospitals and medical providers. Democrats wanted far more, but were able to leverage their votes to double the amount to $150 billion. That money can be used for a wide range of needs, including desperately needed medical equipment and personnel. 

The stimulus measure also provides states and local governments on the front lines of the pandemic response with another $150 billion in aid. That is far more than what Republicans wanted but not as much as the $200 billion Democrats requested. 

Ashley Layton, an LPN at St. Luke's Meridian Medical Center, communicates with a person before taking a swab sample at a special outdoor drive-thru screening station for COVID-19 coronavirus in Meridian, Idaho on March 17, 2020.

What made it in? 

► As with any legislation of the scope of the coronavirus stimulus, both Democrats and Republicans managed to work in some pet projects. Several individual industries won carve outs in the bill, most notably sunscreen manufacturers.The provision is intended to speed Food and Drug Administration review of new sunscreen ingredients.

The bill also provided a tax break for feminine hygiene products, a provision that had long been sought to equalize tax treatment for products used by men and women but that will also represent a boon for the industry.

The legislation also offered a benefit to casinos. Though the gaming industry has been cut out of similar relief packages in the past, Congress chose to allow casinos to apply for small business loans under $10 million and larger amounts available through the Treasury Department.

► The stimulus includes a provision setting aside $17 billion in loans and loan guarantees “critical to maintaining national security.” That’s in addition to the $29 billion set aside for passengers and cargo airlines. 

No company is named in the provision but the main beneficiary has been widely interpreted to be Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company and a key driver of the U.S. economy.

But Boeing might never take advantage of the money because it would trigger the federal government taking an equity stake in the company.

That’s a step Boeing CEO David Calhoun told FOX Business last week he wasn’t interested in seeing his company take.

► Trump has repeatedly faced questions about a $25 million grant for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which has canceled performances through May because of the coronavirus. Republican talking heads and some lawmakers fumed at the expense and blamed Democrats for loading up the bill with “wish list” items.

Supporters noted that, unlike most other arts venues, the Kennedy Center was created by an act of Congress. Trump described the spending as a Democratic request but added that he didn’t mind the request.

“This thing has been devastating to it,” the president said last week. “So I didn’t have a big problem with it.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes

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