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Wednesday, March 25, 2020 1:00 am

Sides appear closer to striking relief deal

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Congressional and White House officials said Tuesday they were closing out final details of unprecedented legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses and workers facing ruin from the coronavirus pandemic.

After days of pressure, unusual partisanship in a crisis, and intense haggling over the fine print, negotiators appeared almost done with a nearly $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.”

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,” he told a Fox News 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 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 today, with a House vote to follow.

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and provide a $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 $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 $1,200 per adult and $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 $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% Social Security payroll tax.

Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund, and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $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.


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