WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump administration officials launched high-stakes negotiations Friday with Senate Republicans and Democrats racing to draft a $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package amid the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s the biggest effort yet from Washington to shore up households and the U.S. economy as the pandemic and its nationwide shutdown hurtles the country toward a likely recession. Mnuchin wants Congress to vote by Monday.
“We want to lay out the need for urgency and quick action,” said Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs. “The American people expect action.”
Despite the pressure to act swiftly, negotiations are certain to hit roadblocks. Democrats panned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rescue plan, which would pump billions into direct payments to Americans, businesses and industry loans. They said it does not go far enough to help ordinary workers or shore up the overburdened healthcare system.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in her own talks with Mnuchin and she and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to press for Democratic priorities.
“We need to work together quickly and do something big and bold to help the American people,” Schumer told reporters.
In a Friday phone call with Trump, Schumer implored the president to invoke the Defense Production Act to order manufactures to ramp up production desperately needed ventilators and other gear.
Trump told the Democratic leader he would do it — and then could be heard yelling to someone in his office to do it now, said Schumer’s spokesman Justin Goodman.
Rushing medical supplies to the frontlines of the crisis has been a top priority for Democrats. Trump said earlier this week he would invoke the Korean War-era authority to do so, but has since wavered, saying he was leaving logistics to the states.
Unveiled Thursday, McConnell’s rescue proposal from Republicans builds on Trump’s request for Congress to “go big.”
It proposes $1,200 direct checks to taxpayers, $300 billion for small businesses to keep idled workers on payroll and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries.
The 247-page McConnell CARES Act puts the leader’s imprint on opening talks with Democrats in Congress as lawmakers prepare to work through the weekend.
Mnuchin assembled one closed-door session, flanked by McConnell on one side and Schumer on the other, before the top senators exited, leaving it to their committee chairmen to hammer out details.
“I tasked these bipartisan teams to reach an agreement by the end of the day today,” McConnell said as he departed.
At the same time, caring for the expected surge of sick Americans is a priority for Congress. The McConnell proposal contains a raft of health care provisions — including permanent liability protection for the manufacturers of respirators and other desperately needed medical gear to handle the pandemic.
Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement that the GOP bill “is not at all pro-worker and instead puts corporations way ahead of workers.”
The Democratic leaders said more healthcare aid is needed. They said their priority is to “make sure all workers are protected from the loss of a paycheck or that no family falls into financial ruin because of this pandemic.”
Keeping paychecks flowing for idled workers as jobless claims skyrocket is a top priority for both Republican and Democratic plans emerging from Congress.
But how best to send direct payments to Americans — as one-time stipends, ongoing payroll support or unemployment checks — is a crucial debate.
Democrats have other ideas for ushering aid to Americans by pushing more money into the existing unemployment insurance system. Schumer called it “employment insurance” — which he characterized as “unemployment insurance on steroids.”
Some GOP senators panned the idea of direct one-time checks, preferring instead to use the federal dollars to keep workers who are asked to stay home on business payrolls.
“What I want is income, not one check,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Meanwhile, industries of all kinds are lining up for help.
Lawmakers are expected to work through the weekend on perhaps the most urgent legislative undertaking since the 2008 financial crisis.
The total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Matthew Daly, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.
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