Congress toils on $1 trillion coronavirus rescue package as Trump unleashes fury

Congress toils on $1 trillion coronavirus rescue package as Trump unleashes fury

Over 200 Americans dead, 14,000 infected, as New York City emerges as nation’s epicenter; global deaths surpass 11,000; China claims no new infections for 3rd straight day

A person is taken on a stretcher into treatment after going through testing for the coronavirus in Houston, Texas, March 19, 2020. (AP/David J. Phillip)
A person is taken on a stretcher into treatment after going through testing for the coronavirus in Houston, Texas, March 19, 2020. (AP/David J. Phillip)

As leaders from Congress and the White House toiled in high-stakes negotiations on a mammoth $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package Friday, US President Donald Trump unleashed fury on those questioning his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It was an extraordinary moment in Washington: Congress undertaking the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the US economy and an angry president lashing out at all comers. All while the global pandemic and its nationwide shutdown grip an anxious, isolated population bracing for a healthcare crisis and looming recession.

When one reporter asked Trump what he would tell a worried nation, the president snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”

Despite the enormous pressure on Washington to swiftly act, the challenges are apparent. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and administration officials labored late into the evening over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus. They’ll be back at it Saturday morning.

“Everybody is working very hard,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, exiting one closed-door session and heading into another.

While key negotiators said they made progress during the daylong talks, they failed to hit an end-of-day deadline to strike a deal. Talks broke around 10:30 p.m.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, March 17, 2020. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Mnuchin launched negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and senators from both parties using McConnell’s GOP offer as a starting point.

“Our nation needs a major next step, and we need it fast,” McConnell said earlier in the day to an empty chamber, the iconic US Capitol closed to visitors.

Preliminary Senate votes are set for Sunday. McConnell said the goal is passage by Monday.

But Mnuchin also conferred privately Friday with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the two leaders pressed for Democratic priorities. Pelosi late Friday called the GOP plan a “non-starter.”

At one point, Schumer told reporters, “We’re making good progress.” But Schumer acknowledged trying to wrap up “tonight is hard.”

The GOP plan aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and billions to small businesses to pay idled workers 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.

At the White House, Trump welcomed the stimulus plan, believing it is needed to stabilize the economy.

But Trump spent much of Friday’s daily briefing in a fury, an angry president lashing out at reporters’ questions.

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.

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.

In Friday phone calls with Trump, Schumer said he specifically implored the president to invoke the Korean War-era act to ramp up production of desperately needed ventilators and other gear.

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

But Trump told reporters he had put the order he invoked Wednesday “into gear” Thursday night. He said he had directed companies to launch production. But then he walked it back, saying, “You know, so far, we haven’t had to” because companies are volunteering.

The administration also announced a further closing of the nation’s border, as the US and Mexico agreed to limit crossings to all but essential travel and trade, while the US moved to restrict entry to anyone without documentation. The US earlier in the week closed its border with Canada to travel.

Later Friday, the White House said a member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said the staff member, who is not being identified, did not have “close contact” either the vice president or Trump.

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

Colorado National Guard medical personnel perform coronavirus test on a motorist at a drive-through testing site in Denver, March 14, 2020. (AP/David Zalubowski)

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.

It puts McConnell’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.

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 “unemployment insurance on steroids.”

Both income support approaches have benefits and drawbacks, lawmakers said. Republicans say their plan would keep workers linked to employers, for easy recall once the crisis abates. Democrats argue the unemployment system provides a ready-made distribution channel, though states could also become overwhelmed by the surge of jobless claims.

A patient wears a protective face mask as she is loaded into an ambulance at The Brooklyn Hospital Center emergency room in New York, March 18, 2020. (AP/John Minchillo)

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

As the Senate chairmen hammered out the details — and House chairmen funneled their input — the total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.

The House, which adjourned last weekend, is not expected to resume until the new package is ready.

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.

The developments come as the global death toll from the pandemic surpassed 11,000 people on Friday.

Italy reported 627 new deaths and saw its world-leading toll climb past 4,000. The country has recorded at least 47,000 infections despite a nationwide lockdown.

Spain’s death toll on Friday passed 1,000 and its number of infections rose past 20,000.

Israel confirmed its first fatality when an 88-year-old man died in Jerusalem. Israel has seen at least 705 cases and at least nine people are in serious condition.

The World Health Organization noted the epidemic’s dramatic speed, pointing out that it took more than three months to reach the first 100,000 confirmed cases but only 12 days to reach the next 100,000. As of Friday, Johns Hopkins University counted more than 260,000 infections worldwide.

In the US, New York City confirmed 5,151 cases of COVID-19 as medical centers saw a flood of patients and fretted about supplies of respirators, hospital beds, face masks and other equipment. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the city the US epicenter of the crisis.

People wear face masks amid fears of coronavirus infection in New York, March 20, 2020. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

New York state, Illinois and California have ordered all residents to stay in their homes unless they have vital reasons to go out, restricting the movement of more than 70 million people, or about one in five US citizens.

“No, this is not life as usual,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said as the death toll in the US topped 200, with at least 35 in his state. “Accept it and realize it and deal with it.”

Some of the only good news came from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began and where hospitals were struggling just weeks ago. Wuhan allowed some stores to re-open as mainland China claimed zero locally transmitted infections for the third day straight on Friday.

South Korea reported 147 new infections and eight more deaths, bringing its totals to 8,799 cases and 102 deaths.

New Zealand health authorities reported the country’s first possible local outbreak, Cuba barred tourists, Colombia announced mandatory lockdowns beginning on Tuesday, Singapore reported its first deaths and several African countries announced their first infections.

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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