Pelosi, White House near agreement on coronavirus aid bill

Pelosi, White House near agreement on coronavirus aid bill

By ANDREW TAYLOR, LISA MASCARO, JILL COLVIN and ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration hoped to announce agreement Friday on a coronavirus aid package to reassure anxious Americans by providing sick pay, free testing and other resources in an effort to ease the calm teetering financial markets and the mounting crisis.

Final details were being worked out, but the top House Democrat, who held daylong talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, expected an announcement Friday. The House could then swiftly vote.

Mnuchin said Friday morning that negotiations were going very well. “I think we’re very close to getting this done,” Mnuchin said, appearing on CNBC.

On the COVID-19 illness, Mnuchin cautioned that “people should understand the numbers are going to go up before they go down.”

Emerging from her office at the Capitol late Thursday, Pelosi said an agreement on an aid package was near. She said a deal was “subject to an exchange of paper and we hope to have an announcement tomorrow.”

The potential deal between Congress and the White House would cap a tumultuous week in which Washington strained for a comprehensive response to the outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health care systems.

President Donald Trump has struggled to show he’s on top of the crisis, after delivering conflicting descriptions of what the U.S. is doing to combat the virus. Classes, sports events, concerts and conferences have been canceled across the nation and the financial markets are cratering.

Democrat Joe Biden, Trump’s chief 2020 presidential rival, criticized Trump for playing down the threat for weeks and promised if he becomes president to “always tell you the truth.”

The House aid package builds on an emergency $8.3 billion measure approved last week and is aimed at providing additional health and financial resources to arrest the sudden spread of the pandemic and the kind of economic fallout unseen in a generation. Pelosi promised in a letter to colleagues that a third package was yet to come.

The new sick leave benefit would require businesses to provide up to 14 days of paid leave to workers who are home quarantined with the virus, with the federal government reimbursing them through tax credits. The bill facilitates unemployment benefits for those laid off during the crisis and boosts food and nutrition programs for working families, students and seniors. Work requirements for food stamps would be suspended, and states would be given additional Medicaid funds to cope with the crisis.

“We felt that putting together something that the American people can see cooperation on between the two parties in this difficult moment would be a confidence builder,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-N.J., the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, joining Pelosi at the Capitol, “and I think that we approached it that way.”

Pelosi promised a third coronavirus package will follow soon, though the House is leaving Washington on Friday for a previously scheduled recess. That measure will include more aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy, which economists fear has already slipped into recession.

But there’s little appetite within either party for Trump’s proposal to suspend collection of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax, and Democratic economic stimulus ideas like higher more generous food stamp benefits aren’t favored by Republicans, while Democrats aren’t very friendly to GOP ideas like easing business regulations. States are already clamoring for fiscal relief from Washington as the virus threatens their budgets.

Meanwhile, disruptions from the virus spread throughout the Washington metropolitan area, as the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court all declared themselves off limits to the public for now, symbols of a nation hunkering down. And schools in the District of Columbia announced they would close, starting Monday, until April 1.

The storied Smithsonian said it was canceling all public events and will temporarily close its network of museums and the National Zoo, starting Saturday. And Trump proposed postponing this summer’s Olympics in Japan for a year, too.

Trump said he will halt his signature campaign rallies, telling reporters he needs a “little separation until such time as this goes away.” Biden and rival Sen. Bernie Sanders said they would no longer hold large political gatherings and their staffs would work from home as the race for the presidency moved online.

The coronavirus crisis also got personal for Trump and some members of Congress.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was in isolation at a hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus. He returned to Australia on Sunday from Washington, where he met Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, last week.

Just days after meeting Trump and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the communications chief for Brazil’s president, Fábio Wajngarten, tested positive for coronavirus. A photo of the president, the senator and Wajngarten shows the trio shoulder-to-shoulder at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last weekend.

It was the first time someone infected with the virus was known to have been so near the president.

Scott said he was isolating himself. Trump, 73, said he was unworried.

“We had dinner in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with the entire delegation,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But we did nothing very unusual. We sat next to each other for a period of time.” Asked whether he should be tested, Trump replied, “I am not concerned.”

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said “the White House is aware of public reports that a member of the Brazilian delegation‘s visit to Mar-a-Lago last weekend tested positive for COVID-19” though; confirmatory testing is pending.

She said: “Both the President and Vice President had almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time.” GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was also at Trump’s club on the weekend, joined a growing list of lawmakers who have chosen to isolate themselves as a precaution.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm at the U.S. response, and especially over the fact few patients have been tested.

“We’re basically, in my opinion, flying blind,” said Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, in several television interviews Friday, said more tests would be available over the next week, but that officials should not wait before trying to mitigate the virus’ effects.

“We will have considerably more testing in the future, but you don’t wait for testing,” Fauci said on ”CBS This Morning.” He said school closings and similar measures are “generally an appropriate approach.”

“We’re at a critical point now as we seek to blunt the rise in cases to make sure it’s a hill, not a mountain,” Fauci said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to be over it.

Trump’s Wednesday announcement of travel restrictions prompted clarifications and criticisms. While Trump said all European travel except from Britain would be cut off, Homeland Security officials clarified that the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area at any point in the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area encompasses most European countries, among them France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria and Belgium.

The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others identified in the proclamation signed by Trump. Vice President Mike Pence said the administration is also asking travelers returning to the U.S. from Europe to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days.

Trump claimed falsely Thursday that the U.S. is currently screening all Americans and foreigners who are entering the country, saying, “people coming in have to be tested.” And he claimed that those who return are being forced to isolate themselves, adding: “It’s going to be a pretty strong enforcement of quarantine.” No widespread quarantine orders have been announced.