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U.S. Senate passes $2 trillion bill for 'strange and evil' coronavirus crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday unanimously backed a $2 trillion bill aimed at helping unemployed workers and industries hurt by the coronavirus epidemic, as well as providing billions of dollars to buy urgently needed medical equipment.

After bitter negotiations, the deeply divided Senate came together and passed the bill by a 96-0 vote, which sent the massive stimulus package to the House of Representatives for a vote on Friday.

President Donald Trump, whose top aides helped negotiate the bipartisan measure, promised to sign it into law as soon as it reaches his desk. “I will sign it immediately,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday.

The rescue package – which would be the biggest ever passed by Congress – includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of U.S. families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

The package is intended to flood the economy with cash in a bid to stem the impact of an intensifying epidemic that has killed more than 900 people in the United States and infected at least 60,000.

Only two other nations, China and Italy, have more coronavirus cases and the World Health Organization has warned the United States looks set to become the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Top aides to Trump and senior senators from both parties announced that they had agreed on the unprecedented stimulus bill in the early hours of Wednesday after five days of talks.

But it was delayed by criticism from both the right and left on Wednesday, pushing the final vote on passage almost another full day.

Several Republican senators had insisted the bill needed to be changed to ensure that laid-off workers would not be paid more in unemployment benefits than they earned on the job. However, an amendment that would have changed the unemployment provision failed just before the Senate approved the measure.

There had been criticism of the bill from the most progressive wing of the Democratic-led House. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called it “a historic corporate giveaway” on Twitter.

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HOUSE VOICE VOTE ON FRIDAY

However, House leaders hoped the bill would pass by voice vote on Friday, without representatives having to return to Washington. Bringing more than 400 lawmakers from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska would be difficult because a few are in self-quarantine and several states have issued stay-at-home orders.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hoped the bill would pass quickly, and that Congress would pass further legislation if necessary to ease the crisis going forward.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had criticized the bill, saying the $3.8 billion allocated to his state would not cover tax revenue it will lose from reduced economic activity. New York accounts for roughly half of all U.S. coronavirus cases.

Pelosi expressed sympathy, but wanted the rescue package to move on. “We (Congress) do have to do more, but that would be no reason to stop this step that we are taking,” she told CNN.

The stimulus package follows two others that became law earlier this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

Investors were cheered by the news of the deal. On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 .SPX rallied for a second straight day, closing up 1.15%.

Senate leaders noted the historic nature of the challenge, as the country grapples with what the Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called “a strange and evil disease.”

“Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory,” Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said shortly before the vote on passage.

McConnell also announced that, after passing the bill, the Senate would leave Washington and be in recess at least until April 20. He said he would give senators 24 hours notice if they needed to come back to Washington for another vote before then.

Missing from Wednesday’s votes was No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune, who said in a statement he did not feel well when he woke up on Wednesday and decided to take a charter flight home to South Dakota “out of an abundance of caution.”

Thune did not say whether he had coronavirus symptoms, although he said he was not advised to self-quarantine.

Another Republican senator, Rand Paul, announced on Sunday he had tested positive for the illness, and a handful of others have self-quarantined after being exposed to Paul or others who have had it.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)

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Mnuchin hopes deal is 'very close' on $2-trillion coronavirus aid package in U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury secretary and the Senate Democratic leader voiced confidence late on Monday for a deal to be reached soon on a far-reaching coronavirus economic stimulus package that had been stalled in the U.S. Senate as lawmakers haggled over it.

Negotiators made great progress on the bipartisan, $2-trillion stimulus measure on Monday, but without striking a final pact as they had hoped, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

“There are still a couple of open issues,” Mnuchin said, just before midnight. “I think we are very hopeful that this can be closed out tomorrow.”

Schumer said he thought the Senate could vote as soon as Tuesday, adding, “It’s a huge bill of $2 trillion with many different moving parts.”

They gave no specifics about remaining obstacles, but Democrats have said the stimulus plan originally proposed by Republicans contained too little money for states and hospitals and not enough restrictions on a fund to help big businesses.

Two attempts to advance a Republican measure in the Senate failed in the past two days, despite the party’s majority.

In the second attempt, on Monday, the 49-46 vote fell short of the 60 needed to advance, as only one Democrat voted with Republicans.

Congress has already passed two packages of legislation to blunt the economic toll of the pandemic, which has killed more than 550 people in the United States and sickened more than 43,800, thrown millions out of work and led state governors to order nearly a third of the nation’s population to stay at home.

Tempers have frayed as Republicans accused Democrats of obstruction during a national emergency, even as talks continued for days.

TRUMP LASHES OUT

Republican President Donald Trump lashed out on Twitter just as Mnuchin and Schumer spoke, accusing Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi of taking an “extended vacation” and then making demands he would never agree to.

“The Democrats want the virus to win?” Trump said in the Twitter post. “They are asking for things that have nothing to do with our great workers or companies.”

Democrats insist any agreement must include more oversight provisions for a $500 billion fund for large businesses, to avoid giving corporate leaders a blank check. Asked about that, Trump responded to reporters, “I’ll be the oversight.”

Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s point person on coronavirus legislation, said he would return to the Capitol at 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT) on Tuesday to resume discussions.

He told reporters Trump would like to have a deal and was hopeful it could be concluded on Tuesday.

The administration launched a major push last week for action to blunt the economic impact from the pandemic, and an accompanying steep decline in the stock market, after Trump himself spent several weeks dismissing the virus’ risks.

The Senate measure includes financial aid for ordinary Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, such as airlines.

Republicans said Democrats were seeking to add unrelated provisions, such as expanded tax credits for wind and solar power and increased leverage for labor unions.

Democrats said provisions sought by Republicans would exclude nonprofit groups from receiving small-business aid, and extend a sexual abstinence-education program due to expire in May.

Pelosi, who has been involved in the Senate talks, also released her own counterproposal, which would add billions of dollars to help states conduct elections by mail.

Republicans hold a slim 53-47 majority in the chamber, short of the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation. But the coronavirus has trimmed their ranks, giving Democrats more leverage.

On Sunday, Republican Senator Rand Paul said he tested positive for coronavirus. But since he kept circulating on Capitol Hill after getting tested, three other Republicans decided to self-quarantine as a precaution.

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Politics

Top Senate Democrat says coronavirus bill has 'many problems'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers clashed on Sunday over the details of a $1 trillion-plus bill to help stem the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, as senators prepared to cast votes on advancing the legislation.

The bill is Congress’ third effort to blunt the economic toll of a disease that has killed at least 400 in the United States and sickened more than 33,000, leading governors to order nearly a third of the nation’s population to shelter in place and putting much business activity on hold.

The measure envisages financial aid for average Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, including airlines.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said the bill would be at risk if they did not quickly strike a deal as a 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) procedural vote loomed, after earlier pronouncing the two parties “very close” on a deal.

But as the procedural vote approached, Democrats said the bill fell short, suggesting McConnell may not get the 60 votes he needs. In a sign of the disease’s spread, Republican Senator Rand Paul on Sunday said he had tested positive for the disease.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s top Democrat, told reporters the proposed bill had “many, many problems” and that staffers from both parties were revising it ahead of the vote.

“It included a large corporate bailout provision with no protections for workers and virtually no oversight,” Schumer said. “It also significantly cut back on the money our hospitals, our cities, our states, our medical workers and so many others needed during this crisis.”

However, lawmakers were mindful that a failure to reach a deal on Sunday could batter already reeling financial markets on Monday.

Over the past week President Donald Trump’s administration has begun pushing for aggressive steps to stem the economic hit from the health crisis, after Trump spent several weeks downplaying the virus’ risks.

One of the Senate’s most moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state where Trump remains popular, blasted the bill, saying it was too focused on worries about Wall Street and needed to have a “balanced approach to putting healthcare first.”

Manchin said he would vote to stop that bill from advancing in the Senate unless it is improved.

Its controversial provisions included those aimed at helping corporations, rather than workers, as well as those allowing the government to delay disclosing what firms, states or municipalities had received aid for up to six months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said her party planned to introduce its own bill.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the November U.S. presidential election, blasted the president’s handling of the crisis.

“President Trump neglected, minimized, and lied about this virus,” Biden said in a statement. “Stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them.”

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” earlier, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the package would include loans for small businesses, direct deposits that could give an average family of four $3,000, and up to $4 trillion in liquidity for the U.S. Federal Reserve to help businesses get through the next 90 to 120 days.

A Republican-drafted bill seen by Reuters gives the U.S. Treasury authority to provide up to $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees and other investments in eligible businesses, states and municipalities to help tide them over during the crisis.

Of this, up to $50 billion could provide loans and loan guarantees for passenger airlines, $8 billion for cargo air carriers and $17 billion for businesses critical to national security.

The remaining $425 billion would be available for loans, loan guarantees and other investments for the Fed to provide liquidity to help the financial system lend to businesses, states and municipalities.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Democratic presidential candidate, told reporters there was “great unhappiness” among Democrats over the bill, while Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said the bill was “weighted to big corporations.”

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Politics

Explainer: What's in the U.S. coronavirus aid bill that just passed Congress?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate passed a more than $100 billion coronavirus aid package on Wednesday, sending it on to President Donald Trump who is expected to sign it into law. Lawmakers are already working on another stimulus effort in response to the widening outbreak in the country.

Here are major elements of the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives on Saturday.

FREE CORONAVIRUS TESTING

The bill would provide free coronavirus testing for those who need it. The Trump administration has struggled to make such tests available.

The legislation would require private healthcare insurers to pay for all testing costs for beneficiaries with medical coverage. It also would cover testing costs for people who receive health care through government-run programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. It provides $1 billion to the National Disaster Medical System, a coordinated healthcare system and partnership involving several federal agencies, to cover costs for people without medical insurance.

PAID SICK LEAVE AND EMERGENCY LEAVE FOR SOME WORKERS

Roughly a third of U.S. employees, predominantly lower-paid workers, currently do not get paid when they stay home due to illness. Health officials have said the coronavirus could spread more quickly if infected workers feel like they cannot afford to stay home without pay.

The bill would require governments and private businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for those who miss work due to coronavirus or for those who have to take care of family members affected by the outbreak.

Workers could take another 10 weeks off, if needed, at two-thirds of their pay.

Businesses and self-employed workers would be able to claim refundable tax credits to cover the expense.

The U.S. Labor Department could exempt companies with fewer than 50 workers if they risk going out of business.

The bill would not apply to large employers like McDonald’s Corp (MCD.N) that do not provide paid sick leave. Some large employers, including Walmart Inc (WMT.N) and Darden Restaurants (DRI.N), have announced they will do so voluntarily.

The bill would only apply to coronavirus-related illnesses and would last only through the end of 2020.

ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

The bill would cover costs for states that extend unemployment payments for six months beyond the usual six-month time limit.

The benefit would apply only to states that see their unemployment rates rise by at least 10%. They would get interest-free loans, if needed, to cover benefit costs under the bill.

It also would encourage employers to avoid layoffs by reducing employees’ hours instead. Affected employees would get unemployment benefits to offset those lost wages.

FOOD ASSISTANCE

The bill would strengthen several programs that help feed low-income Americans. It would provide $250 million for home-delivery meals to seniors, $400 million for food banks, and $500 million to help feed mothers and young children.

It would allow schools that provide free breakfasts and lunches to low-income students to distribute those meals to go, rather than requiring them to be eaten in a cafeteria.

The bill would suspend work requirements for the “food stamp” program that helps low-income people buy groceries. That would override a new Trump administration restriction, due to kick in on April 1, that would have cut off benefits for 700,000 childless, able-bodied adults who are not working.

INCREASE FUNDING FOR MEDICAID PROGRAM FOR THE POOR

The package would increase federal funding for Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, which typically experiences increased enrollment during economic downturns.

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Coronavirus forces U.S. lawmakers to overcome steep partisan divide

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With coronavirus cases reported in all 50 U.S. states, lawmakers in Washington are working to limit the economic damage from the widening epidemic. To do so, they must overcome another problem – partisan gridlock.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected on Wednesday to vote on a roughly $105 billion aid package that bolsters safety-net programs and provides free testing for the highly contagious coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the package by an overwhelming bipartisan margin on Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging his colleagues to approve it quickly.

“Gag and vote for it,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

That may be difficult for some Senate Republicans who worry that the proposed legislation’s sick-leave provisions could heap costs on small businesses. Others have objected it does not cover those who work at corporations that employ more than 500 people.

“I’m pretty concerned with the House bill making a bad situation worse in our economy,” Republican Senator James Lankford said on Tuesday.

Senator Rand Paul, a conservative Republican, will offer an amendment to pay for the new spending in the legislation, said Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul. “This would include ending our decades-long involvement in Afghanistan,” he said.

Still, the Senate is expected to approve the bill this week and immediately turn to a third effort, after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin privately warned that unemployment could hit 20% if Congress does not act.

The third package could include popular items, like giving $1,000 checks to Americans, and less popular items, such as an expensive bailout for airlines that risk falling into bankruptcy due to the sharp decline in travel due the outbreak.

It was unclear when that would be passed or how soon Americans would get the money, but President Donald Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday morning to push the effort.

“For the people that are now out of work because of the important and necessary containment policies, for instance the shutting down of hotels, bars and restaurants, money will soon be coming to you,” Trump said in his tweet.

McConnell said lawmakers were working as rapidly as possible on the third package. “But first, we need to pass the House bill, which hopefully we’ll do later today,” he said on the Senate floor.

‘VOTE AND LEAVE’

Mindful of the backlash to the bank rescue package put together during the 2008 financial crisis, Republicans working on the third effort say it does not amount to a bailout of the industry.

“Chairman Shelby opposes bailouts,” said Blair Taylor, a spokeswoman for Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who is working on the effort.

Separately, the Trump administration on Tuesday night also asked Congress for another $45.8 billion to shore up U.S. agencies responding to the outbreak.

It would also give extra funds to help beef up sanitation efforts at airports, provide extra protective gear to federal agents, bolster cybersecurity protections, improve teleworking capabilities and shore up the Amtrak passenger rail service, which has seen a steep drop in ridership.

Health officials have advised Americans to avoid non-essential travel and large gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 6,500 people across the country and killed at least 115.

McConnell on Wednesday warned his fellow senators to abide by the containment guidelines, admonishing them against congregating as they normally do during votes, especially at the “well” of the chamber where staffers work.

“Come in and vote and leave,” said McConnell, who also announced that the Senate’s typical 15-minute roll-call votes would be extended to 30 minutes so that members did not all rush into the chamber at once.

STIMULUS PACKAGE

Disputes over taxes and spending have repeatedly brought Washington to a standstill over the past decade, but lawmakers so far have overcome their partisan divisions to confront the crisis.

Congress quickly approved an initial $8.3 billion package to boost the medical response to the pandemic, and the House-passed bill enjoyed broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Sick-leave and family-leave provisions alone in the House-passed legislation would cost $105 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Mnuchin said the third package could cost $1.3 trillion – surpassing the $838 billion in stimulus provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which passed Congress with only a handful of Republican votes.

Conservatives like Republican Senator Tom Cotton are calling for it to include expanded safety-net benefits.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, has proposed spending $750 billion on further safety-net enhancements, such as emergency child care for health workers, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday that the third package should include benefits for self-employed workers.

Lawmakers from both parties also have lined up against Trump’s proposed payroll tax cut on the grounds that it would take too long to make a difference and would not help those who lose their jobs.

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As U.S. Senate mulls House coronavirus bill, Schumer proposes $750 bln in new spending

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the U.S. Senate grappled over what to do with a wide-ranging coronavirus economic stimulus bill passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday urged an additional $750 billion to address the growing crisis.

Schumer’s office said his proposal would fund a range of emergency operations, including relieving potential capacity problems at hospitals, expanding jobless benefits, delivering help to small businesses and funding childcare for healthcare workers and first responders.

“We will need big, bold, urgent federal action to deal with this crisis,” Schumer said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a speech on the Senate floor did not refer to Schumer’s latest move and instead noted that the House of Representatives had not yet sent the Senate a multibillion-dollar bill it passed early on Saturday.

Without providing specifics on how he would respond to either the House-passed bill or Schumer’s $750 billion plan, McConnell said of the coronavirus crisis: “The Senate is committed to meeting these uncertain times with bold and bipartisan solutions.”

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