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Politics

Pelosi wants 'vote by mail' provisions in next coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday she hopes “vote by mail” provisions can be part of the next coronavirus response plan being put together by House Democrats.

Speaking in a conference call, Pelosi said at least $2 billion was needed to enable voting by mail, in order to give citizens a safe way to vote during the coronavirus pandemic. She said Democrats had gotten just $400 million for that purpose in a recent bill.

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Business

Wall Street sinks as coronavirus anxiety grows

(Reuters) – The Dow Jones tumbled more than 700 points on Wednesday as investors fled to safe-haven assets after new orders for U.S.-made goods plunged to an 11-year low and private payrolls fell for the first time since 2017.

The blue-chip Dow and the S&P 500 ended Tuesday with their worst opening quarters in history as efforts to contain the virus resulted in deserted shopping streets, massive staff furloughs and a halt in business activity.

Meanwhile, the collapse in oil prices brought about its first major casualty with Whiting Petroleum (WLL.N) filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Its shares slumped 42%.

“There is no easy way to quantify either the economic shutdown or what the eventual recovery is going to look like as the monetary and fiscal policy initiatives are as historic as the economic decline,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities in New York.

Companies on the benchmark index have lost more than $5.6 trillion in market value so far this year, despite trillions of dollars in fiscal and monetary stimulus that helped equity markets claw back some of the sharp declines last week.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Americans of a “painful” two weeks ahead, with White House health officials modeling an enormous jump in virus-related deaths even with strict social distancing measures.

U.S. real estate .SPLRCR, utilties .SPLRCU and consumer staples .SPLRCS stocks, which had held up so far as they are considered stable during times of extreme volatility, fell between 1% and 6.7%.

Goldman Sachs now expects sequential real U.S. GDP to plummet 34% in the second quarter on an annualized basis, foreshadowing a deep economic slump.

“Talk of a bottom in equity markets still seems remarkably premature given the continued increase in infection and death rates across Europe and the United States,” said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in London.

With the quarterly reporting season set to begin in two weeks, S&P 500 companies are expected to enter an earnings recession in 2020, falling 3.7% in the first quarter and 9.6% in the second.

At 9:56 a.m. ET the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was down 658.21 points, or 3.00%, at 21,258.95, the S&P 500 .SPX was down 82.63 points, or 3.20%, at 2,501.96 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was down 213.20 points, or 2.77%, at 7,486.90.

Interest-rate sensitive stocks on the banking index .SPXBK fell 5%, while airlines, hotels and cruise operators shed between 5% and 7%.

The energy sector .SPNY shed another 3%, with experts now saying oil prices could touch single digits, exacerbated by a share tussle among top producers as the world runs out of storage space.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers more than 13-to-1 on the NYSE and 6-to-1 on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded no new 52-week high and seven new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded four new highs and 32 new lows.

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World News

U.S. offers to lift Venezuela sanctions for power-sharing deal, shifting policy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Tuesday offered to begin lifting Venezuela sanctions if the opposition and members of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party form an interim government without him, marking a shift in a U.S. policy that has failed to end his grip on power.

With the South American nation squeezed by low world oil prices, a spreading coronavirus pandemic and a U.S. economic pressure campaign, Washington moved to a more toned-down approach aimed at promoting fair elections as soon as this year to end the political crisis there.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced the administration’s power-sharing “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela, which proposes for the first time a “sequenced exit path” from tough U.S. sanctions, including on the vital oil sector, if Maduro and his allies cooperate.

But it will be no easy task to draw Maduro or his associates onto a path of political reconciliation with opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as the legitimate interim president.

Maduro has held onto power despite repeated U.S. efforts to oust him and shown no willingness to seriously negotiate an end to his rule. As such, Tuesday’s announcement could be seen as a bid by the administration to cut its losses and move on.

Under the U.S. proposal, both Maduro and Guaido would step aside and neither would be part of the transitional government.

The initiative comes less than a week after the U.S. government took a more confrontational tack, indicting Maduro and more than a dozen other current and former top Venezuelan officials on charges of “narco-terrorism,” accusations he dismissed as false and racist.

Maduro’s staying power has become a source of frustration for President Donald Trump, U.S. officials have said privately. Maduro retains the backing of the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.

But the Trump administration hopes an energy dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia that has contributed to the plunging price of oil – Maduro’s main financial lifeline – and the growing coronavirus threat will help make Maduro and his loyalists more pliable.

“The regime is now under heavier pressure than it has ever been,” U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told Reuters earlier. “Maybe this pressure will lead to a serious discussion within the regime.”

The U.S. proposal, which Abrams said was approved by Trump, calls for the opposition-controlled National Assembly “to elect an inclusive transitional government acceptable to the major factions.” A council of state would govern until it oversees elections, which Pompeo said the United States hoped could be held in six to 12 months.

Though the administration has never wavered in public about its support for Guaido, he has struggled to muster the street protests of his first few months as opposition leader. Ordinary Venezuelans, weighed down by food shortages and hyperinflation, have increasingly expressed disappointment at his failure to achieve a change of government.

Venezuela’s foreign ministry dismissed the U.S. proposal as “an effort to win geopolitical advantage in the midst of a frightening global pandemic.” Abrams, in a conference call with reporters, called the Venezuelan government’s response “totally predictable.”

QUESTIONS ABOUT MADURO’S FUTURE

In an apparent softening of tone, Abrams told Reuters that while Maduro would have to step aside, the plan did not call for him to be forced into exile and even suggested that he “could theoretically run” in the election.

Pompeo insisted that “Nicolas Maduro will never again govern Venezuela,” but said the administration hoped he would take the U.S. proposal seriously.

“If the conditions of the framework are met, including the departure of all foreign security forces,” Pompeo told reporters, “then all remaining U.S. sanctions would be lifted.”

With experts deeming OPEC member Venezuela among the countries that could be hardest hit by the coronavirus, Guaido proposed over the weekend the formation of an emergency government of members across the political spectrum.

The U.S. plan seeks to build on the effort by Guaido as well as a failed round of negotiations between the two sides in Barbados last year, which the Trump administration dismissed at the time.

The proposal represents a significantly less bellicose tone from the administration’s pronouncements since January of last year, when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet.

Asked whether the new proposal indicated the United States was backing away from Guaido, Pompeo said the administration remained “supportive of the work that the rightful president of the Venezuelan people, Juan Guaido, is engaged in.”

But the success of the plan, which calls for power-sharing between the Guaido-led opposition and Socialist lawmakers, would ultimately hinge on Socialist leaders turning on Maduro, the same strategy that Guaido has been unable to execute.

Under the proposal, individual sanctions on dozens of Venezuelan government officials could be lifted as soon as they give up their posts during the transition.

Broader economic sanctions, including on Venezuela’s oil sector and state oil company PDVSA, would be removed only after Maduro leaves office and all Cuban security forces and small Russian contingent are withdrawn, Abrams said.

“People should hire lawyers and start talking to the Department of Justice,” he added, saying the proposal would not have a mechanism to revoke U.S. indictments against Maduro and his loyalists.

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World News

U.S. renews sanctions waivers allowing Iran nonproliferation work

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to continue their work at Iranian nuclear sites to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Reuters earlier reported that the decision to renew waivers to sanctions that bar non-U.S. firms from dealing with Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was expected on Monday, citing four sources familiar with the matter including a U.S. official.

Jewish News Syndicate, a news outlet predominantly focused on Israel and the Jewish world, first reported that the United States was expected to renew the waivers, citing two sources familiar with the decision.

The move by the Trump administration, which in 2018 withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, will allow nonproliferation work to continue at the Arak heavy-water research reactor, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Tehran Research Reactor and other nuclear initiatives.

As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, the United States has not only restored sanctions it had removed under the Iran nuclear deal, but has tightened them to try to force Iran to curb its nuclear, missile and regional activities.

However, the Trump administration has repeatedly waived the sanctions related to nonproliferation work with Iran on the argument that such projects are designed to make the Iranian nuclear program less capable of producing weapons.

“As President Trump said earlier this year, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Morgan Ortagus, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor all developments in Iran’s nuclear program and can adjust these restrictions at any time.”

The waivers are renewed for 60 days, according to the statement.

Washington’s overall policy toward Tehran has faced increasing criticism from opponents and Iranian authorities who say the U.S. sanctions are hampering the country’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 2,460 Iranians and infected nearly 40,000 others.

Iranian authorities have urged other countries and the United Nations to call for the measures to be lifted. Washington has rejected the assertion.

“Stop lying. … It’s not the sanctions. It’s the regime,” Ortagus said on Monday in a Twitter post that copied a tweet by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, accusing Washington of waging an economic war on Iranians and engaging in “medical terror” amid the outbreak.

Washington has so far refused to lift any sanctions and has even ramped up its pressure campaign. Last week, it blacklisted five Iran- and Iraq-based companies and 15 individuals for supporting terrorist groups, its third round of sanctions on Iranian targets in two weeks.

Under the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions that had crippled its economy.

Tehran has long rejected Western assertions that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons.

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World News

Spread of coronavirus accelerates in U.S. jails and prisons

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Sean Hernandez says he covers his mouth and nose with a t-shirt or towel when he leaves his cell, the only defense he can improvise against the coronavirus outbreak now sweeping through New York’s Rikers Island jail system.

Inmates have no access to gloves or proper masks and have only cold water to wash their hands, said Hernandez, who was convicted of attempted murder and has served eight years. He said inmates watched on Thursday as a guard coughed, her cheeks turned red and she collapsed to the ground.

“We are pleading with officers” for better defenses, he said. “They just shrug. In the end, we are just inmates, second-class citizens. We are like livestock.”

As of Saturday, at least 132 inmates and 104 staff at jails across New York City had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The virus appears to be spreading quickly through a jail system famous for its overcrowded cell blocks. The city’s Department of Correction said it is taking many measures to protect detainees, and declined to comment on Hernandez’s account of an infected guard collapsing.

Across the United States, jails and prisons are reporting an accelerating spread of the new disease, and they are taking a varied approach to protecting the inmates in their charge. Thousands of inmates are being released from detention, in some cases with little or no medical screening to determine if they may be infected by the coronavirus and at risk of spreading it into the community, Reuters found.

Since March 22, jails have reported 226 inmates and 131 staff with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a Reuters survey of cities and counties that run America’s 20 largest jails. The numbers are almost certainly an undercount given the fast spread of the virus. Hot spots include Cook County jail in Chicago, Illinois. Since the first case was confirmed there on Sunday, the virus has infected 89 inmates and nine staff. Test results are pending for 92 other detainees.

Inmate advocates, local officials and public defenders are urging jails and prisons to speed up the release of inmates. Jails typically hold people for relatively short periods as they await trial. They have more flexibility to reduce populations than state or federal prisons, whose inmates have been convicted and sentenced.

“We are nowhere close to the rate of release we need to see to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Udi Ofer, director of the justice division at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Every day that government officials do not act is another day that lives are put at risk.”

Some groups are pushing back. Victims’ rights group Marsy’s Law, named after the murdered sister of billionaire Henry Nicholas, has criticized the releases, saying victims of crimes should be notified before the people who committed them are let out — a process that could delay releases of some inmates by weeks or months. However, officials supervising releases in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and other major cities say they are releasing only low-level, non-violent offenders.

New York City has freed about 450 inmates from its jails since last weekend as it scrambles to contain the virus, which has killed more than 28,300 people, including more than 2,050 in the United States.

The city’s independent oversight body for the jails, the Board of Correction, has identified around 2,000 people who could be released — including inmates aged 50 and above, the infirm, nonviolent, low-level offenders or people jailed for parole violations. The city has declined to disclose the number of inmates it has tested for the virus.

On Friday, the New York state government identified 1,100 low-level parole violators for immediate release, including 400 in New York City jails. “Hundreds more will be released soon,” said Colby Hamilton, a spokesman for the mayor.

‘THERE IS NO PROTECTION’

The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and another 745,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

An inmate released on Monday from Rikers Island said sick and healthy people often mingled freely inside the jail. After a prisoner and a guard in his area of the jail were diagnosed with COVID-19, the inmate said he started spending more time in his two-man cell. But he still had to line up with other inmates at the medicine window to get his daily dose of methadone, a drug-addiction treatment.

“There is no protection,” said the 32-year-old inmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You want to get away from people but you can’t.”

The New York City Department of Correction said it has taken measures to address the outbreak, including distributing masks to inmates in areas where someone tested positive for COVID-19, promoting distancing between inmates, cleaning cells and providing soap.

“The Department of Correction is doing everything we can to safely and humanely house people in our custody amid the broader COVID-19 crisis,” said Peter Thorne, the deputy commissioner of public information.

Some jails are releasing inmates who may be ill. In Marietta, Georgia, Aubrey Hardyway, 21, developed a cough, headache, sore throat and a 103-degree fever while held at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center on theft charges. “I just couldn’t take it, I was feeling terrible,” he said.

Four days after falling ill, Hardyway says he was tested for flu and strep throat. When both came back negative, he was taken to a nearby hospital for blood work and other tests. Hardyway says he was never told if he was tested for the coronavirus. A doctor urged deputies to quarantine Hardyway, he says, but he was released hours later after he returned to jail and his friends paid his bond.

Hardyway says he believes he might have exposed cellmates and guards who were in contact with him. At least one deputy has tested positive for the virus and a second has been quarantined after showing symptoms, according to two sources familiar with the jail’s operations.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Jails report they are adopting different tactics to keep the virus out. Some screen new inmates before they’re even booked, taking their temperatures inside police cruisers or garages. Some are quarantining new arrivals until they are medically cleared to join the general population. Some are doing nothing.

Federal prison guards have asked for permission to wear masks on duty, though the Bureau of Prisons had so far declined, said Sandy Parr, a vice president of the union that represents federal prison workers. The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment. Fourteen federal inmates and 13 staff have tested positive for the virus, the bureau said on its website.

A pandemic could be “very dangerous for our inmate population,” Parr said.

Some courts are beginning to agree: A federal judge late on Thursday ordered federal authorities to immediately release 10 people who were being held in county jails in New Jersey while their immigration cases were being heard. U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres ruled that each detainee “faces an imminent risk of death or serious injury in immigration detention” because of the outbreak.

THOUSANDS BEING RELEASED

Inmate releases are being driven by judges, public defenders, prosecutors and occasional orders by political leaders. New Jersey’s chief justice ordered the release of 1,000 jail inmates statewide at the start of the week, seeking to prevent deaths behind bars.

Los Angeles County has released at least 1,700 inmates who had sentences with less than 30 days left. In California’s Santa Clara County, authorities cut the inmate population by at least 400 by releasing some people, delaying sentences and other steps. Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, has cut its jail population by at least 500.

In some counties, police are issuing citations for low-level crimes instead of arresting people. Furloughing work-release prisoners is another strategy to try to limit spread of the virus in crowded and often-unsanitary facilities, where the quality of medical care varies dramatically. Some worry the churn of detainees — coupled with the constant shuffle of officers coming from outside — will spread the illness across jails and communities.

Among a dozen large U.S. jails surveyed by Reuters, there was no uniform approach to preventing an infected inmate from spreading the coronavirus into a community.

Some jurisdictions screened inmates before letting them out. Others, such as King County Correctional Facility in Washington, did not.

“At this time, there is no enhanced screening of inmates occurring at release unless there is some type of pre-existing medical or psychiatric issue,” said Captain David Weirich of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, where at least one correctional officer has tested positive for the coronavirus according to the county.

In Ohio, the Hamilton County Justice Center is checking the temperature of all released inmates before they leave. At the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Seminole, Florida, if an inmate shows any signs of illness, they’re referred to an outside medical provider. Other jails are offering literature on COVID-19 to exiting inmates.

Inmates in federal prisons said some religious services have been cancelled, along with education programs and most visits.

“If the virus gets in here, and we are all expecting it to, we are doomed,” said Steven Jones, a 55-year-old inmate at a federal prison in Littleton, Colorado.

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Politics

Coronavirus emerges as major threat to U.S. election process

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. election officials looking to construct a safe voting system in a worsening coronavirus pandemic are confronting a grim reality: there may not be enough time, money or political will to make it happen by the November election.

The possibility the pandemic could last into the fall, or flare again as millions of voters are set to choose the nation’s next president, has state and local officials scrambling for alternatives to help keep voters safe.

The most-discussed proposals are to make mail-in voting available to all eligible voters nationwide, and to expand early in-person voting to limit the crowds on Election Day.

But election officials say those changes will be costly and complex in a country where traditional voting remains ingrained. About six of every 10 ballots were cast in person on Election Day in 2016, Census data shows.

Democrats fell far short in their effort to include at least $2 billion to help virus-proof the November elections as part of a $2.2-trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that was passed by the U.S. House on Friday. The package devotes $400 million to bolster vote by mail and early voting, expand facilities and hire more poll workers.

“Congress failed to include sufficient, urgently needed funds in the stimulus to help states run elections in a time of pandemic,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “This could wreak havoc in November.”

Republicans opposed to spending big on balloting changes viewed it as an attempt by Democrats to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on states. Democrats said the price tag reflected the enormity of the task of safeguarding the vote during a pandemic.

Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which provides resources and information to election officials nationwide, said the change requires planning – and time is running out.

“You can’t just flip a switch and vote by mail, this is a very involved process,” Hovland said. “A lot of what is possible in November will be determined now.”

Some officials in both parties still worry they could lose out in a nationwide vote-by-mail system.

Democrats fear it could disenfranchise minorities and low-income voters who tend to move more frequently or lack reliable access to mail service. Republicans cite concerns about voter fraud, and they worry that older voters confused by a new voting system and rural residents with slow mail delivery could be left out.

Fears about the outbreak, which has now infected more than 85,000 Americans and killed over 1,200, have started to affect Americans’ intentions to vote. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken March 18-24, 63% of adults questioned said they were “completely certain” to vote in November. But that figure dropped to 56% when the respondents were asked to project their behavior if coronavirus were still a factor on Election Day.

“If nothing changes by November, there will be a lot of voters who are disenfranchised,” said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause.

The health crisis has already upended the Democratic race to pick a challenger to face incumbent Republican President Donald Trump.

Three states scheduled to proceed with their April 4 Democratic nominating contests – Wyoming, Hawaii and Alaska – have scrapped in-person voting entirely and will only permit voting by mail. Ohio and at least eight other states pushed their primaries back to May or June.

Postponement looks unlikely for the November presidential election, which is set by law and would require action by Congress to move.

“The election is going to happen in November, so we have to put the procedures in place now to make sure it happens safely and fairly,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights at the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.

‘MASSIVE EDUCATION CAMPAIGN’

Introducing a vote-by-mail system in new locales will require election officials to pay for new paper ballots and thick security envelopes, and to buy expensive new machines to sort and tabulate them.

But one of the biggest challenges will be familiarizing people with a new way of voting in a very short time, said Tina Barton, the city clerk and chief elections official in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

“It’s going to take a massive education campaign not only to train all your clerks on a new process but also to educate voters,” Barton said.

The Brennan Center estimated the cost of ensuring vote-by-mail was available for all voters could be up to $1.4 billion, with postage alone costing $600 million.

Hovland of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission said he has gotten so many questions from election administrators about making the transition that he recorded a video conference with local officials in Washington, California and Utah who supervise mail-in ballot systems so they could share their tips with others.

Currently, every state allows some voters to cast ballots sent through the mail. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – conduct elections entirely by mail.

But rules differ from state to state. Some states provide postage-paid envelopes. Others do not. Most allow no-excuse absentee voting. Others require a specific reason for not showing up at the polls, such as an illness or travel.

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill said the state’s Constitution allows absentee voting only in limited circumstances; a pandemic is not one of them.

Merrill has urged Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont to issue an executive order permitting those worried about going to the polls during the outbreak to obtain absentee ballots. He hasn’t announced a decision.

“We’re stuck,” Merrill said. “We have unique problems, and I think it would be extremely difficult to get this implemented by the fall.”

‘NON-PARTISAN’ PROBLEM

The proposed changes to the nation’s voting system ahead of November’s election have triggered partisan suspicions among both Democrats and Republicans.

In Pennsylvania, a key presidential battleground, a local Democratic Party official said he worried widespread use of mail-in balloting might lower participation among low- to moderate-income Democrats who are more transient.

“There’s no doubt, here at least, that it would favor Republicans, who are more affluent and more stable in their lives,” said Ed Hozza, Democratic chairman in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County.

Voting rights advocates in Arizona, which Democrats have targeted as a potential swing state, worry voting by mail could disenfranchise Native Americans who live on reservations inside the state’s boundaries.

People who live on tribal lands often lack a traditional street address. Just one-quarter of Native Americans in Arizona have a postal service address, and many speakers of non-written tribal languages rely on assistance from translators at in-person polling locations, said Alex Gulotta, the Arizona state director of All Voting is Local, a voter protection group.

“The solution can’t be simplistic — it needs to have some complexity to meet the needs of constituent groups that would be harmed by all-mail voting,” he said.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has urged Arizona lawmakers to authorize “all-mail” elections this year, a method the state normally uses only in small jurisdictional elections.

Republicans, too, have concerns mail-in balloting might depress turnout among one of their most reliable voting blocs: rural Americans. Mail service is spotty in some far-flung parts of the country, making it potentially harder for rural-dwellers to participate.

Republican leaders traditionally have resisted more lenient rules on casting ballots. Many cite the potential for voter fraud, a concern that election experts say is not supported by evidence. Still, some Republicans have moved to loosen the restrictions on voting by mail in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said his office would increase the use of absentee ballots for the state’s May 12 primary. And in Georgia, every active voter will be mailed an absentee ballot request form for the May 19 primary to encourage voting amid the pandemic, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said recently.

The danger the virus poses to voters of all stripes has increased pressure on officials to take action, said Trevor Potter, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and president of the Campaign Legal Center.

“This is a non-partisan, non-discriminatory problem that faces both sides,” Potter said.

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Business

Wall Street slumps after three-day rally as virus threat intensifies

(Reuters) – Doubts about the fate of the U.S. economy in the face of the coronavirus hammered Wall Street again on Friday, halting its best three-day bounce in almost a century as the number of cases across the country skyrocketed.

The United States surpassed China as the nation with the most number of COVID-19 cases, putting more pressure on lawmakers to flood the country with cash to support businesses and families.

“We have still not fully understood the degree of the economic impact,” said Massud Ghaussy, senior analyst at Nasdaq IR Intelligence in New York.

“Currently, from a policymaker’s perspective, it’s a relative balance between managing the spread of the virus and opening the economy.”

The U.S. House of Representatives is widely expected to clear a $2 trillion economic rescue package after the Senate passed the proposal on Thursday.

The stimulus bill and unprecedented policy easing by the Federal Reserve have set the S&P 500 .SPX for its best week in over a decade, but it is still down 14% in March and on pace for its worst month since the height of the financial crisis.

The Dow Jones .DJI, briefly establishing a bull market on Thursday, is on course for its biggest weekly gain since 1938, largely helped by a stunning four-day rally for Boeing Co (BA.N).

But with growing fears of a global recession, traders expect more wild swings in financial markets until there are signs of new virus cases peaking and sweeping restrictions placed on entire countries being lifted.

A record 3 million surge in U.S. weekly jobless claims offered the first glimpse of the extent of the economic hit from the outbreak.

“We’re not out of the woods yet on the health or economic crisis,” said Eddie Perkin, chief equity investment officer at Eaton Vance in Boston.

“It would seem odd to me if the markets fully stabilize before we get more clarity on the health front.”

At 11:18 a.m. ET the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was down 595.76 points, or 2.64%, at 21,956.41, the S&P 500 .SPX was down 61.81 points, or 2.35%, at 2,568.26 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was down 188.82 points, or 2.42%, at 7,608.72.

Delta Airlines (DAL.N), United Airlines (UAL.O) and American Airlines (AAL.O) fell between 4% and 8% as U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the aid designated for airlines in the package was not a bailout and that taxpayers would need to be compensated.

Boeing shed 10% after gaining as much as 90% this week, as Mnuchin said the planemaker had no intention of participating in the package.

The banking index .SPXBK fell 5%, tracking U.S. Treasury yields, while oil majors Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) and Chevron Corp (CVX.N) fell about 6%, following a drop in oil prices.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers for a 4.58-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and 3.63-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded no new 52-week high and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded four new highs and 19 new lows.

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Politics

Factbox: What's in the $2.2 trillion Senate coronavirus rescue package

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday unanimously approved an unprecedented stimulus package to alleviate the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are major elements of the plan. Cost estimates are provided by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

DIRECT PAYMENTS TO AMERICANS

Direct payments of up to $1,200 each to millions of Americans, with additional payments of $500 per child. Payments would be phased out for those earning more than $75,000 a year. Those earning more than $99,000 would not be eligible.

Estimated cost: $290 billion

ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT AID

Payments for jobless workers would increase by $600 per week. Laid-off workers would get those payments for up to four months. Regular benefits, which typically run out after six months in most states, would be extended for an additional 13 weeks.

Self-employed workers, independent contractors and those who typically don’t qualify for unemployment benefits would be eligible. The government would also partially make up wages for workers whose hours are scaled back, in an effort to encourage employers to avoid layoffs.

Estimated cost: $260 billion

SMALL BUSINESS LOANS AND GRANTS

Loans for businesses that have fewer than 500 employees could be partially forgiven if they are used for employee salaries, rent, mortgage interest and utility costs. The bill also includes emergency grants for small business.

Estimated cost: $377 billion.

AID TO AIRLINES, LARGE BUSINESSES

The bill sets up a fund to support a new Federal Reserve program that offers up to $4.5 trillion in loans to businesses, states and cities that can’t get financing through other means.

Companies tapping the fund would not be able to engage in stock buybacks and would have to retain at least 90% of their employees through the end of September. They would not be able to boost executive pay by more than $425,000 annually, and those earning more than $3 million a year could see their salaries reduced.

The fund would be overseen by an inspector general and a congressional oversight board. The Treasury secretary would have to disclose transactions.

Businesses owned by President Donald Trump, other administration officials or Congress members, or their family members, would not be eligible for assistance.

Loans are set aside for airlines, air cargo carriers, airline contractors and “businesses important to maintaining national security,” widely understood to be Boeing Co (BA.N).

Total cost: $504 billion

GRANTS FOR AIRLINES

Airlines, air cargo carries and airline contractors also could get grants to cover payroll costs. They would have to maintain service and staffing levels, and would not be able to buy back stock or pay dividends. The U.S. government could get stock or other equity in return. Executive pay above $425,000 a year would be frozen for two years, and those who earn more than $3 million annually would see their salaries reduced.

Total cost: $32 billion

MONEY FOR STATES, HOSPITALS, EDUCATION

– $150 billion for state, local and Native American tribal governments

– $100 billion for hospitals and other elements of the healthcare system

– $16 billion for ventilators, masks and other medical supplies

– $11 billion for vaccines and other medical preparedness

– $4.3 billion for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

– $45 billion in disaster relief

– $30 billion for education

– $25 billion for mass-transit systems

– $10 billion in borrowing authority for the U.S. Postal Service

– $1 billion for the Amtrak passenger rail service and $10 billion for airports, which are experiencing a drop in passengers

TAX CUTS

– A refundable 50 percent payroll tax credit for businesses affected by the coronavirus, to encourage employee retention. Employers would also be able to defer payment of those taxes if necessary. Cost: $67 billion

– Loosened tax deductions for interest and operating losses. Cost: $210 billion

– Suspension of penalties for people who tap their retirement funds early. Cost: $5 billion

– Tax write-offs to encourage charitable deductions and encourage employers to help pay off student loans. Cost: $3 billion

– Waiving of federal tax on distilled spirits used to make hand sanitizer

INCREASED SAFETY NET SPENDING

– $42 billion in additional spending for food stamps and child nutrition

– $12 billion for housing programs

– $45 billion for child and family services

OTHER ELEMENTS

– A ban on foreclosing on federally backed mortgages through mid-May, and a four-month ban on evictions by landlords who rely on federal housing programs.

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Business

Treasury: U.S. will be 'compensated' for assistance to airlines

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Friday that taxpayers will “compensated” for providing up to $25 billion in direct grants to the airline industry.

“I’ve been very clear this is not an airline bailout,” Mnuchin told Fox Business Network Friday. “It is support to the airlines for national security reasons that the taxpayers are going to be compensated for.”

U.S. airlines are preparing to tap the government to cover payroll in a sharp travel downturn triggered by the coronavirus, even after the government warned it may take stakes in exchange for bailout funds or other financial instruments, people familiar with the matter said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would hire “brilliant financial minds” from Wall Street to assist in the government’s airline assistance efforts.

“We will be able to handle United and we will be able to handle Delta,” Trump said, adding it is “possible” the government could own large stakes in the airlines. “Saving the airlines is very important.”

Under the bill signed by Trump Friday, Mnuchin can demand equity, warrants or other financial instruments to “provide appropriate compensation to the federal government.” Mnuchin did not directly answer whether he will seek warrants or equity.

The Treasury has an internal working group already discussing how to proceed, people briefed on the matter said. A person briefed on the matter said Mnuchin is expected to take a hard line with the airlines who had threatened to furlough tens of thousands of workers without immediate cash.

Airline stocks fell Friday on Mnuchin’s comments.

American Airlines Inc (AAL.O) fell 6%, while Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) fell 9% and JetBlue Airways (JBLU.O) fell 7%.

“We have people coming from other agencies in the government to come and help us out,” Mnuchin said, saying officials are working at “lighting speed.”

American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said Thursday the largest U.S. airline is eligible for $12 billion of the $50 billion in U.S. government loans and grants. Parker said the conditions for the grants are “not currently well-defined.” But he added “I expect their terms will not be onerous.”

Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) said Friday the “payroll assistance funds ensure there will be no involuntary furloughs or reductions in pay rates through Sept. 30.”

Airlines are supposed to receive payments within 10 days of the law’s signing.

Boeing Co (BA.N) has sought at least $60 billion in government loans or loan guarantees aerospace industry. Earlier this week, Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said the company was not interested in giving the government equity in exchange for loans.

“Boeing has said they have no intention of using the program – that may change in the future,” Mnuchin said.

Trump said Friday that “Boeing will probably need a hand.”

Boeing did not immediately comment Friday. “The taxpayers will be fully compensated,” Mnuchin said. “No bailout for Boeing or anyone else.”

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Categories
World News

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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