WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers were rushing on Thursday to forge a massive economic stimulus package to counter the destructive impact of the coronavirus outbreak, with the Senate’s Republican leader vowing not to let the chamber adjourn until it was done.
FILE PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to members of the news media while walking into his office, as Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a State of Emergency due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Although a few lawmakers expressed doubts about the yawning amounts under discussion, with one Republican senator warning against “shoveling money out of a helicopter,” Republican leaders in the Senate said they hoped to agree on a proposal with the Trump administration on Thursday. They then planned to start talks with Democrats, who are the minority in the chamber.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in an interview with Fox Business Network, on Thursday urged Congress to pass by early next week a $1 trillion-plus economic relief measure to help individuals and businesses devastated by the coronavirus.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he had been in talks with Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, and that he would meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell later in the day to hammer out a package.
“We need a Marshall Plan for all of the healthcare industry, particularly our hospitals,” Schumer told MSNBC. “We will be talking about the dire situation in the hospitals in a few weeks if we don’t act now.” He said unemployment insurance was also paramount.
McConnell said on Wednesday the Senate would remain in session until it finishes the legislation and sends it to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. “We are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”
Congress passed an $8.3 billion measure earlier this month to combat the coronavirus outbreak and develop vaccines for the highly contagious disease that has infected about 9,000 people in the United States and killed more than 150. The outbreak has paralyzed large sectors of the U.S. economy and led to fears of a global recession.[nL1N2BC0NI]
On Wednesday, lawmakers approved and Trump signed another $105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending.
It was unclear how the spread of the virus could impact U.S. lawmakers’ ability to work. Representative Ben McAdams, a Democrat from Utah, and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, have tested positive for the virus, and Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, said he was self-quarantining after contact with Diaz-Balart.
McAdams, speaking on NBC’s “Today” program, suggested the House should plan for work contingencies amid the ongoing national emergency.
“Remote voting is not currently allowed under House rules. I think we need to consider changing that under certain provisions,” McAdams said.
The new stimulus plan the Trump administration has proposed could include $500 billion in direct payments to Americans, possibly in the form of two rounds of checks that Trump said could amount to $1,000 each.
The strategy, as outlined in a Treasury Department memo, also would provide $300 billion for small businesses, $50 billion in loans for cash-strapped airlines and $150 billion for loan guarantees to other distressed economic sectors.
Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Susan Collins, said the $300 billion for small businesses would be in loans that could be converted into grants to help keep staff employed and meet expenses such as utility costs and lease payments.
“If we do not act to help the small-business sector, I predict that we will see massive layoffs and an inordinate number of small businesses shutting their doors,” Collins said.
But senators in both parties expressed concern about rushing into “bailouts” of distressed industries. Senator Ben Sasse, the Republican who warned about shoveling money out of a helicopter, said there was a dangerous “herd mentality” developing in Washington. He was one of eight Republicans who voted against the $105 billion-plus aid bill on Wednesday.
The Trump administration also asked Congress for an additional $45.8 billion to shore up U.S. government agencies responding to the outbreak.
Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; Writing by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao