Congressional rescue deal teeters as coronavirus crisis deepens
WASHINGTON - Top-level negotiations between Congress and the White House teetered Sunday over a now nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package, as the coronavirus crisis deepened, the nation shut down and the first U.S. senator tested positive for the disease.
As President Donald Trump took to the podium in the White House briefing room and promised to help Americans who feel afraid and isolated as the pandemic spreads, the Senate voted against advancing the rescue package. But negotiations continued on Capitol Hill.
“I think you’ll get there. To me it’s not very complicated: We have to help the worker. We have to save the companies,“ Trump said. “We’re enduring a great national trial and we will prove that we can meet the moment. We’re at war.“
At the otherwise emptied out Capitol, the draft aid bill was declared insufficient by Democrats, who argued it was tilted toward corporations and did too little to help workers and healthcare providers. The setback sent Republicans back to the negotiating table.
With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets poised for the new work week, doubts emerged about the fate of an agreement that would provide some relief against health and economic crises that are likely to stretch for several months.
“Americans don’t need to see us haggling endlessly,” warned Senate Majority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., his voice rising on the Senate floor. He sought passage of the package by Monday.
But Democrats say the largely GOP-led effort does not go far enough to provide health care and unemployment aid for Americans, and fails to put restraints on a proposed $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the draft package “significantly cut back our hospitals, our cities, our states, our medical workers and so many others needed in this crisis.”
While the congressional leaders worked to send help, alarms were being sounded from coast to coast about the wave of coronavirus cases about to crash onto the nation’s health system.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had dire, urgent news from the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter: “April and May are going to be a lot worse,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
De Blasio all but begged Washington to help procure ventilators and other medical supplies. He accused the president of “not lifting a finger” to help.
Trump urged Congress to get a deal done and, during the Sunday briefing, responded to criticism that his administration was sluggish to act. He cited his cooperation with the three states hardest hit - New York, Washington and California - and invoked a measure to give governors flexibility in calling up the national guard under their control, while the federal government covers the bill.
But even as Trump stressed federal-local partnerships, some governors, including Republican Greg Abbott of Texas, expressed unhappiness with Washington’s response. The president himself took a swipe hours earlier at Gov. J. B. Pritzker, D-Ill., saying that he and “a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News“ should not be “blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.“
This came as the first senator, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. Paul, who is a doctor and close ally of the president, said in a tweet he was not showing symptoms and was in quarantine.
Paul was seen at a GOP senators’ lunch on Friday and swimming in the Senate gym pool on Sunday morning. His office said he left the Senate immediately after learning his diagnosis.
A growing list of lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation after exposure, and two members of the House have said they tested positive. Five senators were in self-quarantine Sunday evening.
In recent days, Trump invoked the Defense Protection Act, a rarely used, decades-old authority that can be used to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators. Officials said Sunday that it would be used voluntarily and businesses would not be compelled to act.
“We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats. “Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them, how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.“
The president tweeted Sunday that automakers General Motors and Tesla were given “the go ahead” to make ventilators and other products. But no automaker is anywhere close to making medical gear such as ventilators and remain months away, if not longer. Nor do the car companies need the president’s permission to move forward.