Pandemic: Congress, White House move swiftly on coronavirus aid
By Lisa Mascaro and Andrew Taylor
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is quickly unveiling a coronavirus aid package while President Donald Trump is considering a national disaster declaration for the U.S. as Washington raced Wednesday to confront the outbreak that’s moving dramatically across the country and disrupting the daily lives of Americans.
The swiftly mounting effort to contain the outbreak and financial fallout intensified on a grueling day as the number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S. and the World Health Organization declared that the global crisis is now a pandemic. Communities nationwide canceled public events in the hopes of halting the spread of the infection.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that the outbreak in the U.S. is going to get worse.
“I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Facing questions from lawmakers, Fauci explained, “It is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.” The hearing was abruptly paused as he and other high-level officials rushed back to the White House for meetings.
After days of mixed signals and partisan differences, Washington, led by Congress, leapt into action.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to unveil the economic assistance package, with voting possible as soon as Thursday, on sick pay and other measures to financially help those self-quarantining or missing work as officials encourage people to limit social interactions to slow the rise of infections.
After lawmakers from both parties rebuffed Trump’s proposed payroll tax break, bipartisan support appeared to be forming for the House’s package, which would focus on more immediate issues — sick pay, unemployment benefits, free tests and other resources for American suddenly hit by the crisis.
“Right now we’re trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said Wednesday as Democrats met behind closed doors. “So paid family leave, making sure the tests are free to everybody, boosting unemployment insurance and so forth. That’s immediate. That’s tomorrow.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with the Democratic leader, agreed with the need for fast action.
“We urge Congress to pass legislation quickly,” Mnuchin testified on Capitol Hill.
Mnuchin told lawmakers there will be a “large number” of workers who will need to self-quarantine or stay home with family members — comparing the costs to a natural disaster that would require federal aid.
“We think it is appropriate for the government to pick up those costs. This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses,” Mnuchin said. He and Pelosi spoke again early Wednesday to discuss proposals for the package.
To that end, the administration floated several strategies, including the rare idea of declaring national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the planning and granted anonymity.
The White House was also floating other measures, delaying the April 15 federal tax deadline for some taxpayers in a bid to soften the impact virus outbreak on the U.S. economy.
The administration was also expected to announce an executive order insisting on American-made medical supplies and pharmaceuticals in response to the virus, according to a person familiar with the plan who wasn’t authorized to discuss it and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support for the funding package being assembled in Congress.
“We need to do something,” McCarthy said. “I think the things that will be put forth will not be as controversial, and I think they could become very bipartisan.”
The president was promoting an economic stimulus package as the financial markets reel. They nosedived at the start of the week, climbed back up and then fell again Wednesday. But lawmakers from both political parties roundly panned Trump’s call for a payroll tax holiday or industry aid as they focus on stopping the virus spread and helping households.
Pelosi’s goal is to pass a more narrowly drawn measure as soon as Thursday, before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later on, those familiar with the thinking said. They were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We don’t think they should just throw money out of an airplane and hope some of it lands on the people who are affected,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who proposed additional measures including cash infusions for small businesses and student loan forbearance. “It’s aimed at people, not at big corporations.”
With Trump’s GOP allies in Congress split over his tax plans, support may be slim, leaving Democrats to push ahead with their initial response. Mnuchin appeared to concur with that approach.
“We want to get done what we can do this week, and we will come back,” Mnuchin said on the Hill.
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. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed, and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
In Washington, tourists still arrived for springtime visits with crowds at the U.S. Capitol, but lawmakers were instructed by the House’s attending physician to step up their social-distancing practices — avoiding “shaking hands, giving/receiving hugs, taking selfies, etc.”
One lawmaker, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., announced his office staff would be primarily working remotely, halting all person-to-person contact and suspending its staff-led tour of the Capitol. He said in a posting to constituents that he hoped his plan could serve as a “template” for others.
Several lawmakers, including Trump confidants, have placed themselves in quarantine after being exposed to someone who had the virus.
Trump on Tuesday pitched his economic stimulus ideas privately to wary Senate Republicans, but details were slight and the president’s GOP allies have been cool to additional spending at this stage.
Some Republicans endorsed Trump’s suggestion that help be provided to the beleaguered cruise ship, airlines or other industries.
Key Democrats displayed little appetite to prop up corporations harmed by the outbreak.