By Laura King and Jennifer Haberkorn | Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders continued negotiations Sunday on an enormous financial rescue package totaling more than $1 trillion meant to steer the U.S. economy through the coronavirus crisis and help ordinary Americans weather devastating job losses as lawmakers continued to diverge on key points.
Although both parties said they agreed on the urgency of passing a measure quickly as unemployment rapidly mounts and jittery markets prepare to reopen Monday, the two sides remained at loggerheads on several key issues, including how much money to provide state and local governments faced with the crisis and how much authority to give administration officials to decide which major businesses to bail out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the two sides were close to a deal, but Democrats sharply disagreed, saying the current version amount to a “corporate slush fund.”
Lawmakers faced another pressure toward quick action — concerns about their own health. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, announced Sunday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus infection, although he said he felt fine.
Worry has run high in the Senate about other members falling ill since many had spent time with Paul. Sunday afternoon, several Republican senators announced they were self-quarantining on the advice of congressional doctors because of their contact with Paul. Their announcements threatened to wipe out the Republican majority in the Senate, which does not allow members to vote remotely.
“All senators are going to seek medical advice as to what action we should take to make sure that we don’t in any way spread the virus ourselves,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of those who announced a self-quarantine. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, reportedly told colleagues that Paul had been working out in the Senate gym Sunday morning before finding out the result of his test.
Meanwhile, the full effects of the public health emergency are only beginning to be felt, experts warned, as state governors stepped up pleas for more robust federal intervention.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-home order and closed nonessential businesses, saying that the state now had “the fastest growth rate of confirmed cases in the world” and risked becoming “the next Italy,” which currently has the worst death rate from the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This emergency is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “We’re in a race against time with this coronavirus and its spread in Louisiana.” The state currently has the third-highest per capita rate of cases after New York and Washington, 830 cases and 20 deaths, according to state figures.
Nationwide, “we’re going to get hit, there’s no doubt about it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease specialist, said Sunday.
But Fauci, the director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the drastic steps being taken across the country — school closings, business shutdowns, shelter-in-place orders — would pay off by helping stem the virus’ spread.
“The things that we’re seeing in this country, this physical separation, at the same time as we’re preventing an influx of cases coming in — I think that’s gonna go a long way to preventing us from becoming an Italy,” Fauci said, referring to the country with the world’s highest death toll from COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said federal authorities were trying to keep up with states’ demands for medical equipment and protective gear for healthcare workers.
But Gaynor struggled to say precisely when the federal government would be able to provide states with hospital masks, gowns, respiratory equipment and other badly needed medical supplies. His advice for the nation’s governors: If they find a supply source on their own, “go buy it.”
Current and former officials warned that the financial impact will mirror the health crisis, with immense hardships to come. Asked what kind of economic pain lay ahead, President Trump’s former economic advisor Gary Cohn replied: “Enormous.”
Congress was on the right track with the economic rescue plan, the largest in the nation’s history, Cohn said.
“They’re trying to do an income replacement plan, keep as many people employed and on companies’ payrolls as you can, and allow them to keep living — allow them to buy their groceries, allow them to buy the drugs and medicines they need,” he said.
The bill, which currently totals about $1.4 trillion, would include direct payments to individuals and families (on average about $3,000 for a family of four, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said), expanded unemployment benefits and a massive loan program to tide over small businesses.
It is intended as a bridge to get the country through the worst of the crisis over the next eight to 10 weeks, with the possibility of increases later.
“I think the president has every expectation that this is going to look a lot better four or eight weeks from now,” Mnuchin said of the outbreak and efforts to contain it. “If for any reason, 10 weeks from now with this virus, we haven’t won this, we’ll go back to Congress again.”
Democrats, however, said the plan continues to fall significantly short. Among their chief concerns was a provision for some $500 billion that Mnuchin would control that could be used to bail out major industries that have been hit by the crisis. The identities of companies getting the money could be withheld for months, the bill says.
The bill doesn’t include enough regulations to protect workers, prevent layoffs and ensure that taxpayer money goes to payroll, Democrats said. Prohibitions on stock buybacks are too weak, they said, and can be easily waived by the Treasury.
The legislation also doesn’t include provisions that Democrats say are necessary, such as more money for SNAP, the program that gives low-income people help buying food; guaranteed funding for treatment for the COVID-19 disease for people without insurance; and money to help state and local governments.
“This is not a bipartisan proposal. This is a Republican-only proposal at this point,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “It creates a slush fund for the big guys and no help for workers and no help for hospitals. I don’t see how Democrats can possibly support that.”
McConnell, however, said Republicans already had made many concessions to Democratic priorities.
“This national crisis is not going to wait around if Congress slips back into conventional politics or haggles endlessly over the finer points,” he said on the Senate floor. “It’s just about time to take yes for an answer.”
With the Senate scheduled to take an important procedural vote Sunday afternoon, Democrats will have to decide whether to accept the current version of the deal, which they consider inadequate and hope that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) can add to when it lands in the House or stall the bill in the Senate in hope of forcing the Republican majority to make more concessions.
Pelosi said Sunday that House Democrats would being drafting their own bill.
“We’ll be introducing our own bill and hopefully it will be compatible” with what the Senate passes, Pelosi told reporters.
Earlier, Mnuchin voiced optimism about hammering out differences so that the measure could be approved on Monday.
“We need the money now,” he said.
Staff Writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.
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