US Senate approves $500bn coronavirus aid package

A near-500 billion dollar (£403bn) coronavirus aid package has been approved by the US Senate, after Congress and the White House reached a deal to replenish a small business payroll fund and provided new money for hospitals and testing.

The package now goes to the House of Representatives.

Passage was swift and unanimous, despite opposition from conservative Republicans, and President Donald Trump tweeted his support, pledging to sign it into law.

“The Senate is continuing to stand by the American people,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

After nearly two weeks of negotiations and deadlock, Congress and the White House reached agreement on Tuesday on the package – the fourth as Washington strains to respond to the health and economic crisis.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said the bill was made “better and broader” after Democrats forced the inclusion of money for hospitals and testing.

Most of the funding, 331 billion dollars (£27bn), would go to boost a small-business payroll loan programme that ran out of money last week.

An additional 75 billion dollars (£60bn) would be given to hospitals, and 25 billion dollars (£20bn) would be spent to boost testing for the virus, a key step in building the confidence required to reopen state economies.

Missing from the package, however, was extra funding for state and local governments staring down budget holes and desperate to avert furloughs and layoffs of workers needed to keep cities running.

President Donald Trump pledged to sign the package into law. Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Mr Trump said he was open to including in a subsequent virus aid package fiscal relief for state and local government – which Democrats wanted for the current bill – along with infrastructure projects.

Not all Republicans are backing Mr Trump on the deal.

Two conservative Republicans, Senator Mike Lee and Senator Rand Paul, voiced opposition during Tuesday’s session but did not halt passage.

Mr Lee said it was “unacceptable” that the full Senate was not present and voting in the pro forma session, citing a strict reading of the Constitution.

Mr Paul said no amount of federal funding will be able to salvage a shuttered economy. “Deaths from infectious disease will continue, but we cannot continue to indefinitely quarantine,” said Mr Paul, who tested positive for the virus last month but has since recovered.

The House is being called to Washington for a Thursday vote, said House majority leader Steny Hoyer.

Mr Hoyer said the House will also vote on a proposal to allow proxy voting on future business during the pandemic, a first for Congress, which has required in-person business essentially since its founding.

“The House must show the American people that we continue to work hard on their behalf,” Mr Hoyer wrote to colleagues.

But the landmark rules change met with objections from conservative Republicans in the House.

“I don’t support it at all,” said Clay Higgins, one of a handful of Republicans who showed up for Tuesday’s pro forma session to protest against proxy votes. “Congress should be in session.”

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know