Congressional rescue teeters as coronavirus crisis grows
Washington — Top-level negotiations between Congress and White House teetered Sunday over a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package, as the coronavirus crisis deepened, the nation shut down and the first U.S. senator tested positive for the disease.
As President Donald Trump took to the podium in the White House briefing room and promised to help Americans who feel afraid and isolated as the pandemic spreads, the Senate turned back the aid package on a procedural vote. But negotiations continued on Capitol Hill.
“We’re enduring a great national trial and we will prove that we can meet the moment,” Trump said. “We’re at war.”
RELATED REPORT: Rand Paul is 1st senator to report positive test for virus
At the otherwise emptied out Capitol, the draft aid bill was declared insufficient by Democrats, who argued it was tilted toward corporations rather than workers and healthcare providers. The setback sent Republicans back to the negotiating table.
With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets poised for the new work week, all sides were hoping for an agreement that would provide some relief against health and economic crises that are likely to stretch for several months.
“Americans don’t need to see us haggling endlessly,” warned Senate Majority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., his voice rising on the Senate floor. He sought passage of the package by Monday.
But Democrats say the largely GOP-led effort does not go far enough to provide health care and unemployment aid for Americans, and fails to put restraints on a proposed $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the draft package “significantly cut back our hospitals, our cities, our states, our medical workers and so many others needed in this crisis.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said this is a public health crisis first and foremost.
"Our most urgent priority must be to address the need for an immediate infusion of resources to fully support our hospitals and brave health care providers. In addition, any economic package must put the needs of Michigan families, our workers, and small businesses first,” she said in a statement.
While the congressional leaders worked to send help, alarms were being sounded from coast to coast about the wave of coronavirus cases about to crash onto the nation’s health system.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had dire, urgent news from the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter: “April and May are going to be a lot worse,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
De Blasio all but begged Washington to help procure ventilators and other medical supplies. He accused the president of “not lifting a finger” to help.
“If the president doesn’t act, people will die who could have lived otherwise,” he said.
Trump urged Congress to get a deal done and, during the Sunday briefing, responded to criticism that his administration was sluggish to respond. He cited his cooperation with the three states hardest hit – New York, Washington and California – and invoked a measure to give governors flexibility in calling up the national guard under their control, while the federal government covers the bill.
But even as Trump stressed federal-local partnerships, some governors, including Republican Greg Abbott of Texas, expressed unhappiness with Washington’s response. The president himself took a swipe hours earlier at Gov. J. B. Pritzker, D-Ill., saying that he and “a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News” should not be “blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.”
This came as the first senator, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. Paul, who is a doctor and close ally of the president, said in a tweet he was not showing symptoms and was in quarantine.
Paul was seen at a GOP senators’ lunch on Friday and swimming in the Senate gym pool on Sunday morning. His office said he left the Senate immediately after learning his diagnosis.
A growing list of lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation after exposure, and two members of the House have said they tested positive. Five senators were in self-quarantine Sunday evening.
In recent days, Trump invoked the Defense Protection Act, a rarely used, decades-old authority that can be used to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators. Officials said Sunday that it would be used voluntarily and businesses would not be compelled to act.
The president tweeted Sunday that automakers General Motors and Tesla were given “the go ahead” to make ventilators and other products. But no automaker is anywhere close to making medical gear such as ventilators and remain months away, if not longer. Nor do the car companies need the president’s permission to move forward.
Two days after he lashed out at a reporter who asked about his message to frightened Americans, Trump said, “For those worried and afraid, please know as long as I am your president, you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you.”
But minutes later, when he learned that rival Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was one of those in isolation, he declared “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad.”
Trump claimed he was not being sarcastic.
The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket, businesses shutter and the financial markets are set to re-open Monday eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the healthcare crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.
At issue is how best to keep paychecks flowing for millions of workers abruptly sidelined by the crisis, shore up business and create a so-called Marshall Plan for U.S. hospitals – evoking the postwar effort to rebuild Western Europe.
Officials put the price tag of the rescue package at nearly $1.4 trillion and said that with other measures from the Federal Reserve it could pump $2 trillion into the U.S. economy.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was leading a third day of nonstop talks on Capitol Hill, said the plan was meant to prop up the nation’s weakened economy for the next 10 to 12 weeks.
Mnuchin said workers and businesses will get assistance to help cover payrolls for the next 10 weeks; unemployment insurance; and a one-time “bridge payment” of about $3,000 for a family of four. Hospitals, he said, will get approximately $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients.
The treasury secretary said a significant part of the package will involve working with the Federal Reserve for up to $4 trillion of liquidity to support the economy with “broad-based lending programs.”
But Democrats have pushed for add-ons, including food security aid, small business loans and other measures for workers – saying the three months of unemployment insurance offered under the draft plan was not enough.
They warned the draft plan’s $500 billion “corporate slush fund” does not put enough restraints on business, saying the ban on corporate stock buy-backs are weak and the limits on executive pay are only for two years.
“We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family, or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “We’re here to help workers, we’re here to help hospitals.”
There is also a $242 billion proposal for emergency supplemental food, hospital and public health needs, including for the Centers for Disease Control.
The details are coming from drafts of both bills circulating among lobbyists but not yet released to the public. They were obtained by The Associated Press.
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.