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Politics

After Senate vote, massive U.S. coronavirus bill moves to the House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate’s unanimous passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill sent the unprecedented economic legislation to the House of Representatives, whose Democratic leaders hope to pass it on Friday.

The Republican-led Senate approved the massive bill – which would be the largest fiscal stimulus measure ever passed by Congress – by 96 votes to none late on Wednesday, overcoming bitter partisan negotiations and boosting its chances of passing the Democratic-majority House.

The unanimous vote, a rare departure from bitter partisanship in Washington, underscored how seriously members of Congress are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system reels.

“When there’s a crisis of this magnitude, the private sector cannot solve it,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Individuals even with bravery and valor are not powerful enough to beat it back. Government is the only force large enough to staunch the bleeding and begin the healing.”

The package is intended to flood the country with cash in a bid to stem the crushing impact on the economy of an intensifying epidemic that has killed more than 900 people in the United States and infected at least 60,000.

It follows two others that became law this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the total $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

Republican President Donald Trump, who has promised to sign the bill as soon as it passes the House, expressed his delight on Twitter. “96-0 in the United States Senate. Congratulations AMERICA!” he wrote.

Only two other nations, China and Italy, have more coronavirus cases than the United States. The World Health Organization has warned the United States looks set to become the epicenter of the pandemic.

The House’s Democratic leaders announced that they would have a voice vote on Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she backed the bill, and was open to passing more legislation if needed to address the crisis in future.

The House Republican leadership is recommending a “yes” vote.

The massive bill, worth more than $2 trillion, includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

There had been some debate about whether all 430 House members, most of whom have been out of Washington since March 14, would have to return to consider the bill. That would have been difficult, given that at least two have tested positive for coronavirus, a handful of others are in self-quarantine and several states have issued stay-at-home orders.

There are five vacant House seats.

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World News

Tempers rise in U.S. Senate as vote nears on $2 trillion coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators were set to vote on Wednesday on a $2 trillion bipartisan package of legislation to alleviate the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, although critics from the right and left threatened to hold up the bill.

Top aides to Republican President Donald Trump and senior Senate Republicans and Democrats said they agreed on the unprecedented stimulus bill in the early hours of Wednesday after five days of talks.

The massive bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of U.S. families.

Several Republican senators said the bill needed to be changed to ensure that laid-off workers would not be paid more than they earned on the job.

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told a news conference.

In response, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he was prepared to block the bill if Republicans do not drop their objections.

That came after leaders of both parties predicted a Wednesday vote.

“Today the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the chamber convened at noon (1600 GMT).

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  • Factbox: What's in the $2 trillion U.S. Senate coronavirus rescue package

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said his party was willing to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

“Help is on the way. Big help. Quick help,” he said on the Senate floor.

Trump is ready to sign the measure into law, the White House said, but it was unclear how quickly Congress could get the package to his desk. McConnell did not say what time the Senate would hold its vote, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is not expected to act before Thursday.

The package will also include $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

It would be the largest rescue package ever approved by Congress and the third such effort to be passed this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the $3.8 billion allocated to his state would not cover the tax revenue it stands to lose from reduced economic activity. His state accounts for roughly half of all U.S. coronavirus cases.

“That is a drop in the bucket,” he said at a news conference.

The package aims to flood the U.S. economy with cash in a bid to stem the impact of a pandemic that has killed 812 people in the United States and infected more than 59,200.

The governors of at least 18 states, including New York, have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the pathogen’s spread, but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 .SPX rallied for a second straight day, closing up 1.15%. [nL1N2BI1YH]

Republican Senator Rand Paul, the only senator to vote against an earlier round of emergency virus funding, may be unable to vote after testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

It also must pass the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who proposed a more far-reaching rescue package, did not say whether she would support the Senate version.

“We’ll see the bill and see how the Senate votes. So there’s no decision about timing until we see the bill,” she told reporters.

Any changes made by the House would also require Senate approval, which could lead to further delays.

The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, told lawmakers that they would be notified 24 hours before any action.

House members left Washington 10 days ago, but the lower chamber could quickly pass the bill without requiring their return, through a “voice vote” that would require only a few lawmakers to be present.

The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, said he would prefer that approach and called for its passage on Friday.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)

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Politics

'Very close:' $2 trillion coronavirus aid deal takes shape in U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Democrats and Republicans in the divided U.S. Congress said on Tuesday they were close to a deal on a $2 trillion stimulus package to limit the coronavirus pandemic’s economic toll, but it was unclear when they would be ready to vote on a bill.

“We are very close,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, as the chamber opened its session on Tuesday morning.

The Republican-led chamber’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said on the Senate floor that “of the few outstanding issues I don’t see any that can’t be overcome within the next few hours.”

The $2 trillion package includes a proposed $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount to send direct payments of up to $3,000 to millions of U.S. families, as well as $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $75 billion for hospitals.

It aims to stem the heavy economic impact of a pandemic that has killed more than 660 people in the United States and sickened more than 50,000, shuttered thousands of businesses, thrown millions out of work and led state governors to order about 100 million people – nearly a third of the nation’s population – to stay at home.

A few issues, such as assistance to states, remained unresolved as of early afternoon, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. It was unclear when the Senate would be able to vote on the deal.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said the sides had agreed to more oversight provisions for the proposed $500 billion to help hard-hit industries, resolving a key sticking point.

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  • Factbox: What's in the nearly $2 trillion U.S. Senate coronavirus stimulus?

The latest version would increase unemployment benefits by up to $600 per week, ensuring that many who lose their jobs would not see a drop in income, according to a Democratic aide. Jobless benefits currently pay workers a fraction of their salaries.

The bill calls for an inspector general and a bipartisan congressional panel to monitor the industrial aid, sources said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would have to tell lawmakers about what companies were tapping the aid, according to the administration official. Companies would face restrictions on stock buybacks and executive pay.

Lawmakers were also nearing an agreement to include $32 billion in grants to passenger and cargo airlines, sources said. They would have to choose between accepting grants or loans but could not receive both.

Democrats have twice blocked attempts to advance the bill, saying it did not provide enough money for states and hospitals, lacked sufficient aid for unemployed Americans and did not include adequate supervision of a massive fund to aid big businesses.

Wall Street bounced from three-year lows on Tuesday on hopes the Senate might be close to ending its standoff.

President Donald Trump, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has said he may try to restart the economy more quickly by easing a public-health clampdown that aims to slow the spread of the virus. State officials have warned that step could mean more deaths.

‘ALL OF THE NONSENSE’

Republicans, Democrats and top Trump aides have negotiated for days over the package, which would be the third and by far largest passed to address the crisis if it is backed by the Senate and the Democratic-led House and signed by the Republican president.

Pelosi said on MSNBC that the House could unanimously pass the legislation once it clears the Senate, but might also try to change it. This would lead to further delays and possibly require that chamber to return to Washington.

“We have some additions that we think would be very helpful to America’s workers,” she said.

The money at stake in the stimulus legislation amounts to more than what the U.S. government spends on national defense, scientific research, highway construction and other discretionary programs.

“Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Pelosi has introduced her own $2.5 trillion counterproposal that also includes $4 billion to allow states to conduct the November presidential and congressional elections by mail. Multiple states postponed their presidential nominating primaries due to the pandemic.

Pelosi’s legislation would likely be irrelevant if a bipartisan deal is forged in the Senate.

Republicans normally hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning they need Democratic support to garner the 60 votes required to advance most legislation.

But the coronavirus has affected their ranks, giving Democrats more leverage. Republican Senator Rand Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus and four other Republicans are also unable to vote because they were exposed to Paul or others with the virus.

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Politics

Coronavirus relief bill hits snag in U.S. Senate, talks continue

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Partisan battles in the U.S. Senate stopped a $1 trillion-plus coronavirus response bill from advancing on Sunday, but talks continued over Democrats’ demands for more funding for medical care and state and local efforts to combat the pandemic.

The measure failed to get the necessary 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to clear a procedural hurdle after days of negotiations, with 47 senators voting in favor and 47 opposed.

Later on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, announced that without a bipartisan deal in coming hours, he would hold another vote on the same measure on Monday to again test Democrats’ opposition.

“We’re going to vote at 9:45 in the morning (1345 GMT) … 15 minutes after the markets open and see whether there’s a change of heart,” McConnell warned.

Democrats had decried the Republican proposal as prioritizing the needs of Wall Street and corporate America over those of average people.

The move by McConnell came as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shuttled between the offices of the Republican leader and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in search of a deal. At one point, Mnuchin indicated to reporters that progress was being made.

The bill is Congress’s third effort to blunt the economic toll of a disease that has killed at least 420 people in the United States and sickened more than 33,000, leading governors to order nearly a third of the nation’s population to stay at home and putting much business activity on hold.

The bill includes financial aid for regular Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, including airlines.

Democrats raised objections to the Senate bill throughout the day, with Schumer saying it had “many, many problems” and would benefit corporate interests at the expense of hospitals, healthcare workers, cities and states.

The failure of the measure to move forward sends Democrats and Republicans back to the bargaining table. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said that Democrats in that chamber will begin crafting an alternative bill.

After the vote, Schumer said more money was needed for community health centers, nursing homes, masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment and aid to state and local governments.

On the Senate floor, a visibly angry McConnell accused Democrats of obstruction.

“Even if Democrats reverse course tomorrow, the vote they cast today will almost certainly cause more Americans to lose their jobs and more seniors hard-earned retirement savings to literally evaporate,” he said.

Lawmakers were mindful that a failure to reach a deal on Sunday could batter already reeling financial markets on Monday.

But Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said that would not rush Democrats into a deal they do not want.

“Markets always come back,” he said.

In a sign of the disease’s spread, Republican Senator Rand Paul on Sunday said he had tested positive. Republican Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney said they would self-quarantine as a result.

At a White House briefing on Sunday, President Donald Trump said he still had hope that a massive aid package could pass Congress swiftly.

“They are very close to getting a deal done,” Trump said. “So I’d be surprised if they didn’t and if they don’t, I think frankly the American people will be very upset with the Democrats because the Republicans are ready to approve a deal. The only reason a deal couldn’t get done is pure politics.”

Vice President Mike Pence said 254,000 Americans have been tested for the virus and slightly more than 30,000 have tested positive.

Trump said he had activated the National Guard in the three states hardest hit by the outbreak: California, New York and Washington.

The Senate bill’s controversial provisions included those aimed at helping corporations, rather than workers, as well as those allowing the government to delay disclosing what firms, states or municipalities had received aid for up to six months.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the November U.S. presidential election, blasted the president’s handling of the crisis.

“President Trump neglected, minimized, and lied about this virus,” Biden said in a statement. “Stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them.”

Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” the package would include loans for small businesses, direct deposits that could give an average family of four $3,000, and up to $4 trillion in liquidity for the U.S. Federal Reserve to help businesses get through the next 90 to 120 days.

A Republican-drafted bill seen by Reuters gives the U.S. Treasury authority to provide up to $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees and other investments in eligible businesses, states and municipalities during the crisis.

Of this, up to $50 billion could provide loans and loan guarantees for passenger airlines, $8 billion for cargo air carriers and $17 billion for businesses critical to national security.

The remaining $425 billion would be available for loans, loan guarantees and other investments for the Fed to provide liquidity to help the financial system lend to businesses, states and municipalities.

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Politics

U.S. Senate will seek deal on $1 trillion coronavirus economic aid package

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced emergency legislation on Thursday to stem the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and Republicans and Democrats agreed to meet on Friday to seek an agreement.

The $1 trillion-plus package will include direct financial help for Americans, relief for small businesses and their employees, steps to stabilize the economy and new support for healthcare professionals and coronavirus patients, McConnell said.

“We are ready to act as soon as agreement with our colleagues across the aisle can be reached,” he said on the Senate floor. “The Senate is not going anywhere until we take action.”

A vote could still be days away, said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.

McConnell also said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow would be on Capitol Hill on Friday to work with lawmakers from both parties toward an agreement.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats were ready.

“We look forward to working with them to come up with a bipartisan product,” he said. But he stressed any “bailout” of industries must be aimed at helping workers, not executives or shareholders.

In a joint statement, Schumer and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Republican bill “is not at all pro-worker and instead puts corporations way ahead of workers.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement the bill did not adequately fund federal, state and local efforts against the coronavirus and “contains no funding for first responders, child care, schools, help for the homeless, or veterans medical care.”

The package is the third taken up by Congress since the coronavirus erupted in the United States, infecting 12,259 people and killing 200, shutting schools, businesses and wide swaths of American life, and sending the stock market into a tailspin.

A key plank is a direct payment of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples below a certain income threshold, along with $500 for each child in the family, a Senate Finance Committee statement said.

The maximum payments would be for those individuals earning no more than $75,000, and $150,000 for a couple, it said. Above those levels, payments would be reduced, and totally phased out at $99,000 for an individual and $198,000 for couples.

LOANS FOR AIRLINES

The bill also includes $208 billion for industries. That breaks down to $58 billion for airlines, and $150 billion for “other eligible entities,” a Republican statement said. All of this money would be in the form of loans and loan guarantees.

For small businesses, a key Republican constituency, the bill includes $299.4 billion for loan guarantees and loan subsidies.

Under the legislation, taxpayers would be given more time to file their 2019 tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service. The traditional April 15 filing deadline would be moved to July 15, the Finance Committee said.

Healthcare provisions of the bill include expanding testing for the virus, hiring more healthcare workers and speeding the development of new vaccines and treatments. The measure would also allow students to defer payments on student loans, Alexander said in a statement.

Trump sharply changed his tone on the risks posed by the virus this week, after long downplaying them, and started talking about sending Americans $1,000 checks.

Not all Republicans were keen on the idea.

“Just a blanket cash check to everybody in America that’s making up to $75,000? I don’t know the logic of that,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said before the bill was announced.

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House are trying to work out new voting procedures that would allow them to reconvene without endangering members after Utah Democrat Ben McAdams and Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart tested positive for the virus.

Several other House lawmakers, including Republican whip Steve Scalise, were in self-quarantine after having been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus. Pelosi said she had asked the Rules Committee chairman, Representative Jim McGovern, to review how members vote in the chamber.

Congress passed an $8.3 billion measure earlier this month to combat the coronavirus outbreak and develop vaccines for the highly contagious disease.

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved and Trump signed a $105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending.

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Politics

U.S. Senate prepares to vote on one coronavirus aid package while working on another

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress scrambled to limit the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Senate preparing to vote Wednesday on a $105 billion aid package and President Donald Trump pushing for a third, $1 trillion plan.

The Republican-controlled Senate was expected to vote on a roughly $105 billion aid proposal passed by the House of Representatives that bolsters safety-net programs and provides free testing for the highly contagious coronavirus, which has killed more than 100 people across the United States.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the package by an overwhelming bipartisan margin on Saturday.

Lawmakers were also strategizing how to limit their risk of becoming ill, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he planned to double the amount of time to vote to limit the number of members in the chamber at any one time.

Lawmakers were trying to craft another emergency stimulus package that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said on Tuesday could cost $1.3 trillion. The Treasury Department circulated a memo on Wednesday with some of the proposed details.

The document called for $300 billion for small businesses, $50 billion for loans for cash-strapped airlines and $150 billion for loan guarantees to other distressed economic sectors.

It also called for two rounds of payments to individual taxpayers totaling $250 billion each. Payments would be tiered based on income level and family size, the document said. Trump suggested on Tuesday these checks could amount to $1,000 each.

It was unclear when the massive new proposal would be taken up, although one House Democratic aide said Wednesday it might be as soon as next week. It was also unclear how soon Americans would get the money, but Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday morning to push the effort.

“For the people that are now out of work because of the important and necessary containment policies, for instance the shutting down of hotels, bars and restaurants, money will soon be coming to you,” Trump said in his tweet.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Trump administration’s call for $1,000 checks to Americans, saying expanded unemployment benefits would be a more effective way of helping workers by covering them for a longer time with a bigger safety net.

“This is not a time for small thinking. This is not a time for small measures,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “This is a time to be bold, to be aggressive.”

Not all senators were expected to support the $105 billion House-passed bill Wednesday. Some Republicans worry that the sick-leave provisions could heap costs on small businesses.

Senator Rand Paul, a conservative Republican, proposed paying for some of the new spending by ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The Senate rejected that idea.

But McConnell was urging his colleagues to approve the House-passed bill quickly.

Mnuchin privately warned this week that unemployment could hit 20% if Congress does not act.

Separately, the Trump administration late on Tuesday also asked Congress for another $45.8 billion to shore up U.S. agencies responding to the outbreak.

It would also give extra funds to help beef up sanitation efforts at airports, provide extra protective gear to federal agents, bolster cybersecurity protections, improve teleworking capabilities and shore up the Amtrak passenger rail service, which has seen a steep drop in ridership.

House Democrats had concerns with some aspects that might not belong in a coronavirus bill, the House Democratic aide said, such as $291 million for the agency in charge of deporting illegal immigrants.

Congress quickly approved an first $8.3 billion package in early March to boost the medical response to the pandemic.

Health officials have advised Americans to avoid non-essential travel and large gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 6,500 people across the country and killed at least 115.

McConnell on Wednesday warned his fellow senators against congregating as they normally do during votes.

“Come in and vote and leave,” said McConnell, who also said that the Senate’s typical 15-minute roll-call votes would be extended to 30 minutes so that members do not all rush into the chamber at once.

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Business

Senate mulls second coronavirus emergency bill, Trump pushes for new $850 billion measure

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday was weighing a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill passed by the House of Representatives offering economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic as the Trump administration pressed for $850 billion more.

The House of Representatives over the weekend passed a measure that would require sick leave for workers and expand unemployment compensation among other steps, including nearly $1 billion in additional money to help feed children, homebound senior citizens and others.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his chamber is “anxious” to approve the House measure, a move that could happen on Tuesday.

“The Senate will not adjourn until we have passed significant and bold new steps, above and beyond what the House passed,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, however, warned that cutting the payroll tax – apparently the largest chunk of the Trump administration’s new proposal – “may be premature and the wrong response” to fighting the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. Even some Senate Republicans were not enamored of cutting the payroll tax.

Members of both political parties were talking about large amounts of additional money to help blunt the impact of the fast-spreading disease. The outbreak has killed more than 7,000 people worldwide, including at least 89 in the United States, caused massive disruptions to daily life across the country and hammered global financial markets.

The Trump administration wants $500 billion in a payroll tax cut, a $50 billion bailout for airlines struggling from plummeting demand, and $250 billion for small business loans, a U.S. government official said.

Schumer, meanwhile, has talked of spending $750 billion on things like expanding unemployment insurance, bolstering the Medicaid healthcare program for the poor and funding emergency childcare for healthcare workers.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin planned to discuss the administration’s $850 billion stimulus proposal later on Tuesday with Senate Republicans at the Capitol, officials and lawmakers said.

It would be the third coronavirus aid plan to be considered just this month. Trump signed the first $8.3 billion package to battle the coronavirus on March 6.

But the administration’s latest plan could encounter roadblocks in the Senate, where some conservative Republicans have already expressed doubts about the second, House-passed aid package. Other Republicans dislike the payroll tax cut idea favored by Trump.

“I don’t think it’s wise to spend our money on so-called stimulus, like a payroll tax cut. I think it is a good idea to spend money stabilizing the economy,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican. “The economy’s not the problem, the disease is the problem. When we restrain the disease, the economy will bounce back, in my opinion, probably quickly.”

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As U.S. Senate mulls House coronavirus bill, Schumer proposes $750 bln in new spending

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the U.S. Senate grappled over what to do with a wide-ranging coronavirus economic stimulus bill passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday urged an additional $750 billion to address the growing crisis.

Schumer’s office said his proposal would fund a range of emergency operations, including relieving potential capacity problems at hospitals, expanding jobless benefits, delivering help to small businesses and funding childcare for healthcare workers and first responders.

“We will need big, bold, urgent federal action to deal with this crisis,” Schumer said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a speech on the Senate floor did not refer to Schumer’s latest move and instead noted that the House of Representatives had not yet sent the Senate a multibillion-dollar bill it passed early on Saturday.

Without providing specifics on how he would respond to either the House-passed bill or Schumer’s $750 billion plan, McConnell said of the coronavirus crisis: “The Senate is committed to meeting these uncertain times with bold and bipartisan solutions.”

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Partisan battle erupts in U.S. Congress over coronavirus response

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Thursday struggled to pass legislation to help Americans cope with the expanding coronavirus crisis, as Democrats planned to push ahead with a wide-ranging bill that Republicans branded as “unworkable.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Democrats’ 124-page “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” would be debated on the House floor on Thursday.

But at a press conference, Pelosi also said she was negotiating with the Trump administration over provisions such as paying for a free coronavirus testing program.

Last week, Congress displayed unusual bipartisanship when it passed an $8.3 billion coronavirus response bill that attracted only a few ‘no’ votes. But by this week, the poisonous partisan atmosphere was back, as the U.S. government wrestled with responding to the biggest health crisis it has faced in years.

Pelosi said the legislation addresses “the realities of life” for Americans, and told reporters she had consulted with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as she negotiated this week with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The Democrats’ bill would expand paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, funding for child nutrition and other food programs, and other sweeping steps to address economic hardships that the outbreak could wreak on Americans.

McConnell kicked off Thursday’s Senate session, saying the House Democrats’ bill was nothing more than “an ideological wish list” that would create new, burdensome programs and regulations.

He urged bipartisan efforts at passing “smaller, non-controversial pieces of legislation today,” but it was not clear what those would be.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said Pelosi’s bill was “not only completely partisan. It is unworkable.” He suggested a bipartisan plan could be worked out within 48 hours.

But Pelosi, saying Congress needed to address an emergency facing the country, suggested that some Republican concerns could be addressed in subsequent legislation.

“We don’t need 48 hours. We need to just make a decision to help families right now,” Pelosi told reporters.

“Save it for another day,” she said of Republican objections. “Right now, we have to find our common ground, work together to get this done as soon as possible.”

Pelosi faced a couple of options: Passing her bill in the Democratic-controlled House, but sparking a fight with McConnell who could kill the measure in the Senate. That could lead to time-consuming negotiations over a bill. Or, she could make changes over the next few hours in a bid to lure Republican votes.

In past legislative battles, Republicans also have struggled over whether the White House would support a bill they negotiated with Democrats.

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have complained that the United States was ill-prepared to conduct widespread testing for the coronavirus.

That was underscored early on Thursday when senators emerged from a closed briefing from top U.S. health officials.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters the attending physician of Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan, estimated 70 million to 150 million people would contract the coronavirus in the United States.

Blumenthal said he thought the estimates were guesswork because of “insufficient testing” for the disease so far.

Republican Senator Mike Rounds said the health officials were having trouble giving them details on how many test kits were needed and “there was lots of frustration that we were not getting the numbers we were hoping to get.”

Several senators also said there was an issue with the supply chain for items needed to administer the tests, such as cotton swabs and protective gloves.

Meanwhile, a crisis atmosphere enveloped the Capitol, where tourist visits were suspended at least until April 1 and at least two Senate offices were shuttered over worries about possible infections.

The urgency to act was heightened by Congress’ work schedule.

The House and Senate were aiming to start a recess at the end of the week, but it was not clear if that would be delayed by the infighting over the coronavirus bill, the second in two weeks following enactment last week of an $8.3 billion bill to help develop a coronavirus vaccine and finance steps to contain and treat a potentially fatal disease that the virus can cause.

There also were behind-the-scenes talks in Congress to possibly extend the planned one-week recess if the virus outbreak gets significantly worse.

McCarthy complained it could take the Social Security Administration more than six months to get a paid sick leave program in the bill operating.

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