Congress, White House race to draft $1T rescue package
Washington – Leaders from Congress and the White House buckled down for high-stakes negotiations Friday on a mammoth $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package as President Donald Trump lashed out over questions of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The undertaking on Capitol Hill is the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the U.S. economy as the pandemic and its nationwide shutdown grips the country. The goal is passage by Monday.
“Our nation needs a major next step, and we need it fast,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Despite the enormous pressure on Washington, the challenges are apparent as lawmakers labor over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin launched talks on Capitol Hill, using as a starting point McConnell’s offer from Republicans, which aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and billions for small businesses to pay idled workers during the global pandemic.
But Mnuchin also and conferred privately Friday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer as the two leaders pressed for Democratic priorities. Preliminary Senate votes could come Sunday.
As the nation braces for a healthcare crisis and national recession, Democrats say the GOP leader’s plan is insufficient, arguing for greater income support for workers and a “Marshall Plan” for the U.S. healthcare industry, which is preparing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.
In Friday phone calls with Trump, Schumer said the president “was open” to many of the Democratic ideas, including the surge of resources of hospitals and healthcare workers.
“We can’t waste a day,” Schumer added. “I told the president we need to come together and cooperate in this time of crisis. He agreed.”
Talks are expected to push into the night.
At the White House, Trump welcomed the stimulus plan, believing it is needed to stabilize the economy.
The administration also announced a further closing the nation’s border, as the U.S. and Mexico agreed to limit crossings to all but essential travel and trade, while the U.S. moved to restrict entry to anyone without documentation.
But Trump spent much of Friday’s daily briefing in a fury, an angry president lashing out at reporters questions.
When one reporter noted the hard facts in the U.S. – that more than 200 are dead, more than 14,000 infected and millions scared – and asked what the president would tell a worried nation, Trump responded, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”
Trump also sowed further confusion about whether he is using the powers of the Defense Production Act to force American businesses to manufacture needed medical supplies.
During one of the phone calls Friday, Schumer said he specifically implored the president to invoke the Korean War-era act to ramp up production desperately needed ventilators and other gear.
Schumer said Trump told the Democratic leader he would do it – and then could be heard yelling to someone in his office “get it done.”
But Trump told reporters he had put the order he invoked Wednesday “into gear” Thursday night. He said had directed companies to launch production. But then he also walked it back, saying, “You know, so far, we haven’t had to” because companies are volunteering.
Later Friday, the White House said a member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said the staff member, who is not being identified, did not have “close contact” either the vice president or Trump.
Unveiled Thursday, McConnell’s rescue proposal from Republicans builds on Trump’s request for Congress to “go big.”
The GOP plan also proposes $300 billion for small businesses to keep idled workers on payroll and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries. It also seeks to relax a just-enacted family and medical leave mandate on small-to-medium sized businesses from an earlier rescue package.
It puts McConnell’s imprint on the GOP approach after the Senate leader left earlier negotiations to Pelosi and Mnuchin, which angered some of his GOP senators feeling cut out of the final product.
Keeping paychecks flowing for workers not at work is a top priority for both Democrats and Republicans as jobless claims skyrocket.
But how best to send direct payments to Americans – as one-time stipends, ongoing payroll support or unemployment checks – is a crucial debate.
Under McConnell’s approach, small businesses with 500 or fewer employees would be able to tap up to $10 million in forgivable loans from the federal government to continue cutting paychecks.
Democrats prefer sending the money to workers via the existing unemployment insurance system. Schumer called it “unemployment insurance on steroids.”
Both income support approaches have benefits and drawbacks, lawmakers said. Republicans say their plan would keep workers linked to employers, for easy recall once the crisis abates. Democrats argue the unemployment system provides a ready-made distribution channel, though states could also become overwhelmed by the surge of jobless claims.
Meanwhile, industries of all kinds are lining up for help.
As the Senate chairmen hammered out the details – and House chairmen funneled their input – the total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.
The House, which adjourned last weekend, is not expected to resume until the new package is ready.
Lawmakers on conference calls with leaders this week said they preferred not to board airplanes amid the virus outbreak. Despite calls to change the rules, Congress does not have a mechanism in place for remote voting.
Trump has already signed into law a $100 billion-plus bill to boost testing for the coronavirus and guarantee paid sick leave for millions of workers hit by it. Earlier, Trump signed an initial $8.3 billion package from Congress.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Darlene Superville, Matthew Daly, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.