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Talks on $2T bill to ease economic pain from virus drag on

AP  |  Washington 

Unprecedented legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses, workers and a health care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic remained snagged on Capitol Hill, despite predictions by negotiators that a deal was at hand.

After days of pressure, unusual partisanship in a crisis, and intense haggling over the fine print, negotiators on Tuesday were almost done with a USD 2 trillion bill to respond to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called "the most serous threat to Americans' health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America's jobs and prosperity that we've seen since the Great Depression.

The final details proved nettlesome as Trump administration officials continued negotiations deep into the night.

Yet even as the public-health crisis deepened, President Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.

"We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought," Trump told a Fox town hall. He said he'd like to have the country "opened up and just raring to go" by Easter, April 12.

But in a White House briefing later, Trump said "our decision will be based on hard facts and data." Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections.

At the White House briefing, the public-health authorities said it was particularly important for people in the hard-hit New York City metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and for those who have recently left the city to do the same.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said pointedly at the briefing, "No one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations after a tumultuous but productive day Monday. While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote appeared likely Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.

"We're trying to finalise all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we're making a lot of progress, Mnuchin said.

Ravaged in recent days, stocks rocketed as negotiators signaled a resolution was in sight.

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and provide a USD 367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned USD 500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

A one-time payment of USD 1,200 per adult and USD 500 per child would go directly to the public.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salary of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a USD 600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time. Companies would be able to defer payment of the 6.2 per cent Social Security payroll tax.

Opening the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell combined optimism about the chances for a deal with frustration at the delays and a sober view of the crisis at hand.

"The urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone," he said. On the negotiations, he said, "It's taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here."


Still, "we are very close. We are close to a bill that takes our bold Republican framework, integrates further ideas from both parties, and delivers huge progress."

Earlier Tuesday, Trump urged swift action. "Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today," he tweeted.

"The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy. Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilisation fund, and money for cash-strapped states.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a USD 46 billion White House proposal to more than USD 300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bank rescue, officials said.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, March 25 2020. 09:48 IST
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