Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving swiftly toward House passage of a coronavirus aid package possibly this week as Congress rebuffs PresidentTrump's proposed payroll tax break and focuses on immediate sick pay, unemployment benefits and other resources for America's workers hit by the crisis.
Pelosi plans to unveil the measure Wednesday, with voting possible as soon as Thursday, and GOP leaders signaled it could have bipartisan support. Congress is racing to contain the outbreak and financial fallout on another grueling day as the number of confirmed U.S. cases topped 1,000 and the World Health Organization declared that the global crisis is now a pandemic. Communities nationwide canceled public events in the hopes of stopping the spread of the infection.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with the Democratic leader, agreed with the need for fast action.
“We urge Congress to pass legislation quickly,” Mnuchin testified on Capitol Hill.
Mnuchin told lawmakers there will be a “large number” of workers who will need to self-quarantine or stay home with family members — comparing the costs to a natural disaster that would require federal aid.
"We think it is appropriate for the government to pick up those costs. This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses," Mnuchin said. He and Pelosi spoke again early Wednesday to discuss proposals for the package.
The GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support.
"We need to do something," McCarthy said. "I think the things that will be put forth will not be as controversial, and I think they could become very bipartisan."
Testifying on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that the outbreak in the U.S. is going to get worse.
"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now," Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The hearing was abruptly paused as he and other high-level officials rushed back to the White House for meetings.
The president was promoting an economic stimulus package as the financial markets reel. They nosedived at the start of the week, climbed back up and then fell again Wednesday. But lawmakers from both political parties roundly panned Trump's call for a payroll tax holiday or industry aid as they focus on stopping the virus spread and helping households.
“Right now we're trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens," said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., on Wednesday as Democrats met behind closed doors. "So paid family leave, making sure the tests are free to everybody, boosting unemployment insurance and so forth. That's immediate. That's tomorrow.”
Democratic lawmakers are preparing a more limited, immediate response aimed at helping workers without paid sick leave and those facing temporary layoffs because of the outbreak rather than broader stimulus for the economy.
Pelosi's goal is to pass a more narrowly drawn measure as soon as Thursday, before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later on, those familiar with the thinking said. They were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We don't think they should just throw money out of an airplane and hope some of it lands on the people who are affected,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who proposed additional measures including cash infusions for small businesses and student loan forbearance. “It's aimed at people, not at big corporations.”
With Trump's GOP allies in Congress split over his tax plans, support may be slim, leaving Democrats to push ahead with their initial response. Mnuchin appeared to concur with that approach.
“We want to get done what we can do this week, and we will come back," Mnuchin said on the Hill.
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 from the new virus. 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 recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed, and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
Facing questions from lawmakers, Fauci explained, “It is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
In Washington, tourists still arrived for springtime visits with crowds at the U.S. Capitol, but lawmakers were instructed by the House's attending physician to step up their social-distancing practices — avoiding “shaking hands, giving/receiving hugs, taking selfies, etc.”
One lawmaker, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., announced his office staff would be primarily working remotely, halting all person-to-person contact and suspending its staff-led tour of the Capitol. He said in a posting to constituents that he hoped his plan could serve as a “template” for others.
Several lawmakers, including Trump confidants, have placed themselves in quarantine after being exposed to someone who had the virus.
On Wednesday, Trump was poised to announce an executive order insisting on American-made medical supplies and pharmaceuticals in response to the virus, according to a person familiar with the plan who wasn't authorized to discuss it and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump on Tuesday pitched his economic stimulus ideas privately to wary Senate Republicans, but the president's GOP allies have been cool to additional spending at this stage. Democrats prefer their own package of low- or no-cost virus testing, unemployment insurance and sick pay for workers struggling to keep paychecks coming as the outbreak disrupts workplaces.
Trump's team offered few specifics at the closed-door GOP lunch on the size of the payroll tax break or its duration, senators said. Trump has long promised to bring about an election year "tax cuts 2.0" and seemed to be seizing on the virus fears as a way to bring about a victory on that front before November. Behind closed doors he discussed the coming elections in swing states like Arizona and Montana, where GOP senators face tough races.
Besides payroll tax relief, Trump has said he wants help for hourly wage workers to ensure they’re “not going to miss a paycheck” and “don’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault." He's also mentioned small-business loans. But details are slight.
Some Republicans endorsed Trump's suggestion that help be provided to the beleaguered cruise ship and airline industries, while others spoke up for other industries, including energy and gas. Some pushed for broader economic stimulus from a bipartisan highway bill they said was shovel-ready and popular. The payroll tax plan remained a work in progress.
Key Democrats displayed little appetite to prop up corporations harmed by the outbreak.
“The airlines have had record profitability last three years. I assume they have substantial cash reserves," said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “I don't see any immediate need to bail out the private sector. We need to take care of the people first -- people who don't have health insurance, people who don't have sick leave."