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Congressional rescue talks churn as crisis deepens

Trump coronavirus
Posted at 5:05 AM, Mar 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-23 06:00:00-04

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top-level negotiations between Congress and the White House churned late into the night over a now 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 voted Sunday against advancing the rescue package. But talks continued on Capitol Hill.

“I think you’ll get there. To me it’s not very complicated: We have to help the worker. We have to save the companies,” Trump said.

Later, the president suggested the remedies may be more harmful than the actual outbreak, vowing to reassess after the 15-day mark of the shutdown. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweeted.

Inside the otherwise emptied out Capitol, the draft aid bill was declared insufficient by Democrats, who argued it was tilted toward corporations and did too little to help workers and health care providers. Republicans returned to the negotiating table.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, exiting the Capitol just before midnight, struck an optimistic note: “We’re very close,” he said, adding negotiators would work through the night.

“Our nation cannot afford a game of chicken,” warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his voice rising on the Senate floor Sunday night. His goal is to vote Monday. The Senate will re-convene at 12 noon EST.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, sounded an optimistic note.

“This bill is going to affect this country and the lives of Americans, not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years -- so we have to make sure it is good, he said. ’“There were some serious problems with the bill leader McConnell laid down. Huge amounts of corporate bailout funds without restrictions or without oversight -- you wouldn’t even know who is getting the money. Not enough money for hospitals, nurses, PPE, masks, all the health care needs. No money for state and local government, many of whom would go broke. Many other things.”

But Schumer said they were making progress in dealing with those issues. “We’re getting closer and closer. And I’m very hopeful, is how I’d put it, that we can get a bill in the morning.”

With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets poised for the new work week, Washington labored under the size and scope of the rescue package that’s more ambitious than any in recent times — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats say the largely GOP-led effort did not go far enough to provide health care and worker aid, and fails to put restraints on a proposed $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations. They voted to block its advance.

Democrats won a concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also extends to self-employed and so-called “gig” workers.

While the congressional leaders worked into the night, 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.

Trump urged Congress to get a deal done and, during the Sunday briefing, responded to criticism that his administration was sluggish to act. 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.