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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks prior to signing the 'Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,' in the Oval Office at the White House, in Washington, on April 24, 2020.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

President Donald Trump signed a $484-billion bill Friday to aid employers and hospitals under stress from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Americans and devastated broad swaths of the economy.

The bill is the latest effort by the federal government to help keep afloat businesses that have had to close or dramatically alter their operations as states try to slow the spread of the virus. Over the past five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless aid, or about 1 in 6 U.S. workers.

Trump thanked Congress for “answering my call” to provide the critical assistance and said it was “a tremendous victory.” But easy passage of this aid instalment belies a potentially bumpier path ahead for future legislation to address the crisis.

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Trump said most of the funding in the bill would flow to small business through the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides money to small businesses to keep workers on their payroll.

“Great for small businesses, great for the workers,” Trump said.

The measure passed Congress almost unanimously Thursday as lawmakers gathered in Washington as a group for the first time since March 27. They followed stricter social distancing rules while seeking to prove they can do their work despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Lawmakers’ face masks and bandanas added a sombre tone to their effort to aid a nation staggered by the health crisis and devastating economic costs of the pandemic.

“Millions of people out of work,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted, and the uncertainty of it all.”

Anchoring the bill is the Trump administration’s $250-billion request to replenish a fund to help small – and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses. This program provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The legislation contains $100-billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing program, along with $60-billion for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighbourhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders. There’s also $60-billion for small-business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster aid program.

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Passage of more coronavirus relief is likely in the weeks ahead. Supporters are already warning that the business-backed Paycheck Protection Program will exhaust the new $250-billion almost immediately. Launched just weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.

Pelosi and allies said the next measure will distribute more relief to individuals, extend more generous jobless benefits into the fall, provide another round of direct payments to most people and help those who are laid off afford health insurance through COBRA.

Democrats tried to win another round of funding for state and local governments in Thursday’s bill but were rebuffed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who says he’s going to try pump the brakes on runaway deficit spending. McConnell says he doesn’t want to bail out Democratic-governed states for fiscal problems that predated the pandemic, but there’s plenty of demand for state fiscal relief among Republicans, too.

After the Senate passed the bill Tuesday, McConnell said Republicans would entertain no more coronavirus rescue legislation until the Senate returns to Washington in May. He promised rank-and-file Republicans greater say in the future legislation, rather than leaving it in the hands of bipartisan leaders.

Pelosi attacked McConnell for at first opposing adding any money to his original $250-billion package and saying cash-strapped states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy, a move that they currently cannot do and that would threaten a broad range of state services. McConnell’s comments provoked an outcry – including from GOP governors – and he later tempered his remarks.

The four coronavirus relief bills approved so far by Congress would deliver at least $2.4-trillion for business relief, testing and treatment, and direct payments to individuals and the unemployed, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The deficit is virtually certain to breach $3-trillion this year.

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