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Homeland Security

Massive US Coronavirus Economic Aid Stalls in Congress

By Ken Bredemeier March 22, 2020

U.S. congressional action stalled Sunday on a massive $1.8 trillion economic aid package to send money to most Americans and many businesses that have been severely impacted by the deadly coronavirus.

Top Senate Republican leaders and their Democratic counterparts in the House of Representatives failed to reach agreement in a rare Sunday morning meeting in an otherwise empty Capitol.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters there was "no deal" yet on the aid package aimed at boosting the U.S. economy, the world's largest, by sending direct payments to more than 90% of Americans and a vast array of U.S. businesses to help them weather the immediate and burgeoning economic effects of the coronavirus.

The top congressional leaders met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, President Donald Trump's chief negotiator in the aid talks, who earlier in the morning had voiced optimism in a national television interview that a deal was imminent.

Among other elements, the lawmakers were at odds over a $425 billion pool of money for loans and loan guarantees that Republicans want to create, which some opposition Democrats have labeled as a "slush fund" because they believe Mnuchin's Treasury Department would have too much discretion in deciding who receives the money.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is advancing a bill that would send $1,200 checks to most U.S. adults and provide hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to businesses that have been sharply impacted by the pandemic.

But Pelosi other Democrats are said to be concerned that McConnell's proposal does not assist workers enough and needs tougher provisions to prevent bailed-out corporations from carrying out stock buybacks that would make already-wealthy executives even richer.

McConnell said the Senate would continue to advance its version of the legislation.With the standoff, Pelosi said the Democratic-controlled House would pass its own economic aid package, apparently leaving further negotiations with the Senate in limbo. Congress had hoped to send Trump the legislation by midweek, but it was not clear whether the stalemated talks would affect that timetable.

Even as the lawmakers talked, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ophthalmologist by profession, announced that he had contracted the coronavirus, the first senator and the third member of Congress to test positive.

Aside from the obvious impact of the public health crisis, perhaps two million or more U.S. citizens have been laid off from work as thousands of schools, national businesses and such community enterprises as gyms, restaurants, bars and stores have shut their doors, either voluntarily or under state and local government orders.

Governors in five states – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the East, Illinois in the U.S. heartland and California on the Pacific coast – have ordered millions of people to stay home, in effect quarantined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. No national shutdown is planned.

All stock market gains since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 have been erased in a matter of a few weeks, while economists say the U.S., the world's biggest economy with more than $21 trillion in goods and services produced last year, could soon slip into a recession, its first in more than a decade.

The toll from the coronavirus is mounting in the U.S., with more than 27,000 confirmed cases and at least 323 deaths, with both figures markedly increasing in recent days.

On Saturday, Trump said, "We're all negotiating and everybody's working hard," while urging his countrymen, "Stay at home and save lives."

Before the congressional talks stalled, Mnuchin told the "Fox News Sunday" show, "I do think it will get done. The president is very determined to help Americans."

"We think we can stabilize the economy," Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin said the aid package would give thousands of small businesses, those with 500 or fewer employees, enough cash to keep their businesses afloat for two weeks provided they keep their employees working as soon as they can and not dismiss them.

He said this part of the aid package would affect about 50% of the U.S. economy, about half of its workforce of 160 million people.

Mnuchin said that in addition, most Americans would get direct aid, with a family of four getting about $3,000 in one-time assistance. Congressional leaders say this part of the aid package would extend to individuals earning up to $99,000 annually and married couples up to $198,000, which covers about 91% of U.S. households.

"They can think of this as a bridge to get through this," Mnuchin said. He said the cash to families would be a one-time payout, but that if the coronavirus impact lasts longer "we'll come back for more."

The Treasury chief said a third plank of the package would sanction $4 trillion in lending rights for the country's central bank, the Federal Reserve, to inject new liquidity into the American economy as it sees fit.

"We need the money now," Mnuchin said of the overall package. "The president has every intention this is going to look a lot better in eight to 10 weeks."

"The U.S. economy is strong," he said. "The economy is going to bounce back significantly."

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