Congress, White House race to draft $1T rescue package

Coronavirus

From left, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., and White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow attend a a meeting to discuss the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders and the White House buckled down for high-stakes negotiations Friday racing to draft a mammoth $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package amid the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s the biggest effort yet from Washington to shore up upturned households and the U.S. economy as the pandemic and its nationwide shutdown hurtles the country toward a likely recession.

Initial Senate voting is expected Saturday, with the goal of Senate passage on Monday, then sending it to the House. There are long negotiations ahead.

“Our nation needs a major next step, and we need it fast,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Despite the enormous pressure bearing on Washington, the challenges are apparent as lawmakers labor over eye-popping sums and urgent federal intervention, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.

McConnell’s GOP plan 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 Democrats say it’s insufficient, arguing for a “Marshall Plan” for the U.S. healthcare industry, which is bracing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin launched talks on Capitol Hill and conferred privately Friday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. The two leaders pressed for Democratic priorities.

“We need to work together quickly and do something big and bold to help the American people,” Schumer told reporters.

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.”

Schumer specifically implored the president to invoke the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to order manufacturers to ramp up production desperately needed ventilators and other gear.

Trump told the Democratic leader he would do it — and then could be heard yelling to someone in his office “get it done,” Schumer said.

Unveiled Thursday, McConnell’s rescue proposal from Republicans builds on Trump’s request for Congress to “go big.”

The GOP plan proposes the direct checks to taxpayers, $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.

McConnell’s 247-page CARES Act puts the leader’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.

As the president’s own views shift, Trump can be an unreliable partner for the Republican leader making negotiations tough. But McConnell appears to be working in tandem with the White House team on this deal. Trump has been tweeting his support.

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 “employment insurance” — which he characterized as “unemployment insurance on steroids.”

Both income support approaches have benefits and drawbacks, lawmakers said. Republicans say with their plan, workers would remain tied to their employers for paychecks, and they can continue tapping other employee benefits and quickly be recalled once the crisis abates. Democrats argue the unemployment system provides a ready-made distribution channel, though the state systems could also become overwhelmed by the surge of applications.

Some GOP senators panned the idea of simply sending one-time checks to Americans, preferring instead to use that enormous outlay of federal dollars to keep workers who are asked to stay home on payrolls.

“What I want is income, not one check,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Meanwhile, industries of all kinds are lining up for help.

The total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.

Mnuchin convened talks early Friday, flanked by McConnell on one side and Schumer on the other, before the top senators exited, leaving it to their committee chairmen to hammer out details.

A long day, and night, of negotiated was expected. The goal, McConnell said, was to draft the legislative text Saturday ahead of a first procedural vote.

The House, which adjourned last weekend after lawmakers passed an earlier aid package, is not expected to resume until the new one is ready.

Several House Democratic and Republican 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.

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