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Negotiations stall on massive economic rescue package as coronavirus hits Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to reporters
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to reporters after a meeting on an economic rescue package to deal with the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration raced Sunday evening to reach agreement on an enormous financial rescue package totaling nearly $2 trillion meant to steer the U.S. economy through the coronavirus crisis and help ordinary Americans weather devastating job losses. But lawmakers appeared far apart as negotiations headed deep into the night.

Although both parties said they agreed on the urgency of passing a measure quickly as unemployment rapidly mounts and jittery markets prepared to reopen Monday, the two sides remained at loggerheads on several key issues, including how much money to provide state and local governments faced with the crisis and how much authority to give administration officials to decide which major businesses to bail out.

As lawmakers and their staffs prepared to meet into the wee hours, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), warned of “an ugly” Monday in financial markets without a deal. He planned to try again to bring to the floor a key procedural vote on Monday.

“Our nation cannot afford a game of chicken,” McConnell said, adding that he hoped for a “change of heart” from Democrats.

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But Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said he had been meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, representing the administration, and that there was a “good chance we’ll have an agreement” in the morning.

The hardball tactics from both parties came at the end of a weekend of negotiations among rank-and-file lawmakers and between congressional leaders and Mnuchin.

Earlier Sunday, Democrats defeated McConnell in a test vote. The motion, which would have required a bipartisan 60-vote majority to pass, failed 47-47, with six senators absent. Futures markets fell sharply.

The bill, which currently totals about $1.8 trillion, would include direct payments to individuals and families (on average about $3,000 for a family of four, Mnuchin said), expanded unemployment benefits and a massive loan program to tide over small businesses.

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It would be by far the largest such measure in U.S. history, equivalent to roughly half the current federal budget.

The bill is intended as a bridge to get the country through the worst of the crisis over the next eight to 10 weeks, with the possibility of further spending later if the emergency continues.

“I think the president has every expectation that this is going to look a lot better four or eight weeks from now,” Mnuchin said of the outbreak and efforts to contain it. “If for any reason, 10 weeks from now with this virus, we haven’t won this, we’ll go back to Congress again.”

While the two sides agree on major parts of the bill, they remain far apart on some elements. Democrats say that a $500 billion fund to bail out industries hard-hit by the economic disruption caused by the virus amounts to a “corporate slush fund” that the administration could use to reward its friends. And, they say, the bill doesn’t contain enough protections against layoffs by businesses that get federal help.

McConnell and other Republicans say they already have made major concessions to Democrats.

President Trump, at a White House news briefing Sunday evening, took an unusually conciliatory tack, declining to criticize Senate Democrats for holding out.

“We all want to get to the same place,” he said.

“We’re very close,” Trump said. “The Democrats want to get there,” and so do Republicans, he said. “I don’t think anybody has a choice.”

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Asked if he would swear off receiving assistance for his own businesses, Trump demurred, saying that “it cost me billions and billions of dollars to be president” and that he had gotten no credit for declining his annual salary.

McConnell was in a less conciliatory mood than Trump, blaming Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for derailing bipartisan negotiations.

“We’re fiddling here, fiddling with the emotions of the American people, fiddling with the markets, fiddling with our healthcare.”

Schumer, who met several times during the day with Mnuchin, said the two sides were making progress and were “closer than we have been at any point in the last 48 hours.”

In addition to fears about the economy, lawmakers faced another pressure toward quick action — concerns about their own health. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced Sunday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, although he said he felt fine.

Worry has run high in the Senate about other members falling ill, since many had spent time with Paul. By Sunday afternoon, four Republican senators announced they were self-quarantining on the advice of congressional doctors because of their contact with Paul or others with the virus.

Their announcements threatened to wipe out the Republican majority in the Senate, which does not allow members to vote remotely.

Two members of Congress are already ill from the coronavirus and increasing numbers have quarantined themselves. Some lawmakers say Congress may need to shift to remote work and end face-to-face voting.
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“All senators are going to seek medical advice as to what action we should take to make sure that we don’t in any way spread the virus ourselves,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of those who announced a self-quarantine. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told colleagues he saw Paul in the Senate gym Sunday morning, before he found out the result of his test, according to Moran’s spokesman.

Members of the House are already back in their districts, with no return date in sight. There is increasing speculation that once senators pass the latest economic stimulus bill, they could leave Washington for weeks.

Meanwhile, the full effects of the public health emergency are only beginning to be felt, experts warned, as state governors stepped up pleas for more robust federal intervention.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-home order and closed nonessential businesses, saying the state had “the fastest growth rate of confirmed cases in the world” and risked becoming “the next Italy,” which currently has the worst death rate from the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“This emergency is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “We’re in a race against time with this.” The state currently has the third-highest per capita rate of cases after New York and Washington: 830 cases and 20 deaths, according to state figures.

In New York City, which has the nation’s highest concentration of cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the crisis could last months.

“The worst is yet to come. April is going to be a lot worse than March. And I fear May could be worse than April,” he said.

Nationwide, “we’re going to get hit, there’s no doubt about it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease specialist, said Sunday.

But Fauci, the director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the drastic steps being taken across the country — school closings, business shutdowns, shelter-in-place orders — would pay off by helping to stem the virus’ spread.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said federal authorities were trying to keep up with states’ demands for medical equipment and protective gear for healthcare workers.

But Gaynor struggled to say precisely when the federal government would be able to provide states with hospital masks, gowns, respiratory equipment and other badly needed medical supplies. His advice for the nation’s governors: If they find a supply source on their own, “go buy it.”

Shortages of ventilators, masks and other medical supplies have been a persistent weak link in U.S. disaster preparedness. For two decades, expert warnings have largely gone unheeded.

Current and former officials warned that the financial impact will mirror the health crisis, with immense hardships to come. Asked what kind of economic pain lay ahead, President Trump’s former economic advisor Gary Cohn replied: “Enormous.”

As negotiations continued in the Senate, Pelosi said that House Democrats would be drafting their own bill.

“We’ll be introducing our own bill, and hopefully it will be compatible” with what the Senate passes, Pelosi told reporters.

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.


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