Senate Democrats seek $750B for new coronavirus aid package

Lisa Mascaro and Alan Fram
Associated Press

Washington – Senate Democrats are proposing a new coronavirus aid package, with at least $750 billion to boost hospital capacity, unemployment insurance and other direct aid for American households, businesses and the health care industry.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer floated the proposal Monday as Congress and the White House are quickly developing a third aid package to fight the novel virus that has brought the nation to a standstill and thrown the economy into free fall.

“We will need big, bold, urgent federal action to deal with this crisis,” Schumer said.

Senators are returning to a emptied out U.S. Capitol building with one aid package pending – for sick pay, free testing and emergency food – and a new, more sweeping effort being launched amid the crisis.

The rush to inject an infusion of cash and resources into the economy is like nothing seen in Washington since the 2008 financial collapse, an enormous political and economic undertaking with interventions and eye-popping sums to try to protect Americans from the health and financial fallout.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber Monday afternoon, saying he had one message to Americans: “The Senate stands with you.”

McConnell is calling for a “comprehensive” approach for this next, third coronavirus aid package with “significant” steps to help families and businesses as workplaces shutter, schools send students home and health care systems brace to provide emergency care.

The days ahead will test if Congress can quickly respond to the crisis.

For now, the Senate is stalled, waiting on the House to send its package of sick pay and other resources that was approved early Saturday with President Donald Trump’s support, but quickly became tangled in technical issues.

All sides, the House, Senate and White House, say that package – which is coming on top of $8.3 billion in initial aid approved at the start of the month – is not nearly enough to handle what’s coming.

A man walks through an empty U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday. Congress has shut the Capitol and all Senate and House office buildings to the public until April in reaction to the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Industries representing a broad swath of the economy – including travel, airlines, retailers, restaurants and hotels – are seeking help from Congress in withstanding the business closures, layoffs and onslaught of events and travel being canceled by the hour.

The request from the U.S. airlines alone could easily top $50 billion, according to Airlines for America, the trade group representing the carriers.

The nation’s largest business organization asked the Trump administration and Congress on Monday to act rapidly to help companies have access to cash and avert a “potentially devastating” hit to the economy as the coronavirus pandemic forced closures and quarantines that threatened to choke off commerce worldwide.

In a letter to Trump and congressional leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for legislation including a three-month cancellation of the taxes companies pay to support Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance.

The chamber’s CEO, Thomas J. Donohue, said, “No family and no business should go bankrupt just because of the temporary disruption in income caused by the coronavirus.”

The chamber said in a statement accompanying the letter that acting quickly could “mitigate the potentially devastating economic effects” of the virus’ spread.

Ideas about what Congress should do were also flowing from lawmakers themselves. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, suggested that every American should receive a check for $1,000 “to help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy.”

A Republican aide on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said that lawmakers are discussing an infusion of money through a grant program that disperses infrastructure money to airports based on their passenger volume.

The lawmakers are looking at allowing airports to use the money for operational costs, such as janitorial expenses, staffing or debt servicing, according to the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly on lawmaker discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The push for helping business also came as Congress itself struggled to adapt to the ever-evolving perceptions of how organizations should operate to curb the infection’s spread.

With the Capitol closed to all public tours and the House adjourned on a one-week recess – that was extended by a day, to at least March 23, officials announced Monday – the senators are returning to an empty building.

The 100-member Senate was scheduled to meet and hold an evening vote – a potentially stunning sight of people gathered. While different authorities around the country have issued conflicting advice, the government said at a Monday news conference that Americans should not gather in groups of more than 10 people over the next 15 days.

The No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Sunday that it “makes no sense” for senators to board planes to return to Washington. He said the package should simply be accepted by consent.

“Set an example for America, Sen. McConnell. Think about our staff, their families and our constituents, as well as your Senate colleagues,” Durbin said.

In the Capitol’s press galleries, seating was being removed to prevent too many journalists, who typically pack the work spaces, from congregating in big numbers.

The House last week approved a separate relief measure aimed chiefly at workers that included free coronavirus testing and paid sick leave. A nearly empty House – with most of its members away on recess – convened Monday, planning to adopt a resolution to make technical changes to the measure.

The Senate is expected to turn to that legislation this week and is under pressure to send it to Trump quickly. However, another business group and a handful of Republicans were saying they wanted to make changes in the measure.

“It doesn’t go far enough and it doesn’t go fast enough,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Monday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” He also said he and “a lot of other senators” think the House measure doesn’t get cash into affected workers’ hands fast enough.

In addition, the National Federation of Independent Business wrote to House leaders to oppose the effort. It said the bill “would limit flexibility” for small businesses trying to adapt in the crisis, wrote Kevin Kuhlman, the group’s top lobbyist.

The federation has hundreds of thousands of small-business members in every state, making them an influential group in Congress.

Earlier this month, Congress approved yet another measure providing $8.3 billion for federal action aimed at helping the government combat the virus’ spread. That bill, which Trump quickly signed into law, provided federal agencies money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments, and to help state and local governments respond to the threat.

Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Matthew Daly contributed to this story from Washington.

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