As crisis deepens, congressional rescue deal teeters
WASHINGTON (AP) — Top-level negotiations between Congress and the White House teetered Sunday on a nearly $1.4 trillion economic rescue package, as the coronavirus crisis deepened and President Donald Trump called for a deal to steady a shuttered nation.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated an agreement was within reach. But faced with mounting opposition from Democrats who call the package insufficient, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponed a planned procedural vote Sunday, resetting it for 6 p.m.
With a population on edge, societal norms rewritten and financial markets shell shocked, all sides were hoping for an agreement that would provide some relief against the pandemic's twin health and economic crises, now believed likely to stretch for several months.
“Americans don't need to see us haggling endlessly,” McConnell warned, his voice rising on the Senate floor. He wants passage of the package by Monday.
But Democrats say the package does not go far enough to provide health care and unemployment aid for Americans, and caters too much to big business.
“We’re continuing to talk,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would be putting forward their own draft bill.
This as the first senator, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, announced he tested positive for COVID-19, the infection caused by the virus. Paul, who is a doctor and close ally of the president, said in a tweet he was not showing symptoms and was in quarantine.
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 in recent days.
Earlier Sunday, Mnuchin express optimism a deal could be reached with Congress.
“It will get done," he said on “Fox News Sunday, saying the plan was meant to prop up the nation's weakened economy for the next 10 to 12 weeks.
“I think the president has every expectation that this is going to look a lot better four or eight weeks from now,” Mnuchin said. “If for any reason, 10 weeks from now with this virus we haven’t won this, we’ll go back to Congress again.”
Yet 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: It’s bad and only getting worse.
“April and May are going to be a lot worse,” de Blasio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” begging for Washington to help procure ventilators and other medical supplies. De Blasio accused the president of “not lifting a finger” to help his hometown.
“If the president doesn’t act, people will die who could have lived otherwise,” he said.
Trump has defiantly pushed back against criticism he was slow to respond to the crisis, though he continues to send mixed messages as to what, exactly, the federal government is doing.
In recent days, he invoked the Defense Protection Act, a rarely used, decades-old measure that allows the president to marshal the private sector, but officials said Sunday that it has not actually been used to compel the private sector to manufacture supplies like masks and ventilators. The president tweeted Sunday that automakers General Motors and Tesla were given “the go ahead” to make ventilators and other products.
Trump lashed out at the Illinois governor and "a very small group of certain other Governors" for being critical of the response. He tweeted that they should not be “blaming the federal government for their own shortcomings.” He added: “We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!”
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor said on ABC's “This Week” that masks are being shipped from the national stockpile but he could not provide details on a concrete timeline. Gaynor could not say, despite being pressed repeatedly, how many masks would be shipped and when they would arrive.
“I mean, there's hundreds of thousands of — millions of things that we're shipping from the stockpile," Gaynor said. “Will we ever have enough? I’m not sure.”
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. Talks also narrowed on a so-called Marshall Plan for U.S. hospitals — evoking the postwar effort to rebuild Western Europe — as well as loans to airlines and other industries all but grounded by the national shutdown. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan said Sunday the auto industry would also likely need government assistance.
Officials put the price tag 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.
Mnuchin said Sunday that 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.
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.”
Hospitals, Mnuchin said, will get approximately $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients.
But Democrats have pushed for add-ons, including food security aid, small business loans and other measures for workers — including jobless aid for those in the so-called “gig” economy not traditionally eligible for unemployment checks.
A senior Democratic aide unauthorized to discuss the talks and speaking on condition of anonymity said the package provides only three months of unemployment benefits, does not provide eviction protections and creates a $500 billion “corporate slush fund” that does not put enough restraints on how big business will spend the money.
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.
Trump has said companies should not be able to use federal assistance to buy back stock in an effort to increase profits. However, the buyback provisions are "weak" in the draft text, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the emerging package and granted anonymity. The restrictions on buybacks could be waived by the treasury secretary, the person said.
The draft also suggests a two-year ban on executive pay hikes, while some lawmakers want stronger limits.
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.
Bev Banks contributed. Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Hope Yen, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.