In this image from video, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks on the Senate floor at the US Capitol in Washington, Saturday, March 21, 2020. (Photo: AP)
Negotiators from Congress and the White House resumed top-level talks Saturday on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, urged by President Donald Trump to strike a deal to steady a nation thoroughly upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
It was an extraordinary moment in Washington: Congress undertaking the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the US economy and a president angry and lashing out at all comers. All while the global outbreak and the nationwide shutdown grip an anxious, isolated population bracing for a healthcare crisis and looming recession.
Officials put the price tag at nearly $1.4 trillion and said with other measures from the Federal Reserve it could pump $2 trillion into the US economy. Trump, during a briefing at the White House on Saturday, expressed optimism that it could be agreed upon soon.
“They’re all negotiating and everybody’s working hard and they want to get to a solution that’s the right solution, I think we’re very close,” said Trump, who continued to strike a confident tone about the nation’s ability to defeat the pandemic soon.
“We are going to be celebrating a great victory in the not too distant future,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, key congressional and White House officials converged Saturday for more talks on the sweeping aid package, which would provide paychecks for suddenly jobless Americans, money for hospitals and aid to industry.
The Senate convened the rare weekend session with the aim of drafting the package Saturday, holding an initial vote Sunday and winning Senate passage on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday that negotiators are making “important progress,” but urged talks to wrap up.
“This is not a political opportunity, this is a national emergency,” he said. “It’s time to come together, finalize the results of our bipartisan discussions and close this out.”
Despite the enormous pressure on Washington to act swiftly, the challenges are apparent. Lawmakers and administration officials labored late into the evening Friday over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.
Trump has largely stayed out of the details, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle privately acknowledge may have sped up the process, but he said Saturday that he would be lobbying the lead negotiators. He also expressed a clear distaste for any industry, including the airlines, that would use federal assistance to buy back its own stock in an effort to increase profits.
Banning stock buy-backs is one of Democrats’ top priorities in the emerging rescue package as lawmakers strain to avoid a repeat of earlier politically toxic bailouts. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said that meant no layoffs, no salary boosts for executives and no stock buy-backs.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin began negotiations with McConnell, Schumer and other senators from both parties using McConnell’s GOP offer as a starting point.
The GOP plan aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and provide billions to small businesses to pay workers idled during the global pandemic. But Democrats say McConnell’s plan is insufficient, arguing for greater income support for workers and a “Marshall Plan” for the US healthcare industry, which is preparing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.
On Saturday, Trump opened the daily virus briefing with a roll call of his administration’s accomplishments, a week-in-review meant to rebut criticism that the White House was moving too slowly to combat the crisis. He also pushed back against accusations that he was sluggish to act for fear of upsetting China, though he told aides last month that he had not wanted to alienate Beijing, an important trading partner, by criticizing its secretive handling of the initial outbreak.
Trump did not lose his temper on Saturday, unlike the day before, when he repeatedly lashed out at reporters. At times, he seemed to refuse to want to hear the reality of an increasingly dire situation. It was when one reporter noted the hard facts in the US — that more than 200 are dead, more than 14,000 infected and millions scared — that he snapped back.
But mixed, vague messaging still ruled the briefing.
Hospitals across the nation, about to be overwhelmed by an expected surge of coronavirus patients, have reported a dire shortage of masks and ventilators. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday the government was completing a half-billion-dollar order for masks, but none of the government officials at the briefing could suggest when they would reach medical facilities, a moment of confusion that caused Trump to grow visibly frustrated.
Health officials again warned Americans that the number of coronavirus cases would continue to increase in part as testing grew more widespread. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, promised that the administration’s measures were slowing the spread even though they were not yet easily quantified.
Fauci also, again, tried not to over-promise the effectiveness or speed of medication that could possibly be used to treat the virus. After Trump had exited the briefing room, he answered a question about Trump’s tweet about the drugs by saying “I’m not totally sure what the president was referring to.”
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. Though he official invoked it this week, he said Saturday that he has not yet needed to utilize it to compel businesses to act, despite the pronounced supply shortage.
Pence provided an update on a member of his staff who had tested positive for the new coronavirus. The staffer, who did have close contact with either the president or vice president, was doing well, Pence said.
The vice president added that, out of abundance of caution, he and his wife, Karen, would be tested for the virus later Saturday. Yet Pence still stood just a few feet from Trump on the White House briefing room podium.
Unveiled Thursday, McConnell’s rescue proposal builds on Trump’s request for Congress to “go big.”
The GOP plan 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.
Trump acknowledged the outbreak was hurting his family’s business of hotels and country clubs but insisted he did not talk about the government response to the outbreak with his adult sons, who now run the Trump Organization. The president said he did not know whether his business would be one of the many to seek government assistance.
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.
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.