WASHINGTON - Senate leaders and the Trump administration appeared closer to reaching bipartisan agreement Monday evening on a massive stimulus bill that could inject $2 trillion into the economy to blunt the impacts of the coronavirus.
After a day of partisan rancor and posturing on Capitol Hill, the outlook grew markedly more positive later in the day, when offers and counteroffers were exchanged. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., convened Democrats on a conference call and told them he was hopeful of striking a deal by the end of the day, according to a person familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details.
Schumer was very upbeat, according to another Democrat, who listened to the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it. Some senators encouraged Schumer to announce a deal in principle Monday evening, but several issues remained unresolved so that appeared unlikely.
At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters that a deal was near.
"They have to get together and just stop with the partisan politics, and I think that's happening," Trump said. "I got a call a little while ago I guess they are getting closer. It should go quickly, and it must go quickly. It's not really a choice. They don't have a choice. They have to make a deal."
Overall, the legislation is aimed at flooding the economy with capital to revive businesses and households that have been knocked off course by fears about the virus's rapid spread. Though details remained fluid, the legislation would include direct payments of $1,200 to many American adults, $500 to children, and create roughly $850 billion in loan and assistance programs for businesses, states, and cities. There would also be large spending increases for the unemployment insurance program, hospitals, and other health-care providers that are being overwhelmed by the crisis.
Democratic concerns have focused on the $500 billion funding program for loans and loan guarantees Republicans want to create, which some Democrats are labeling a "slush fund" because the Treasury Department would have broad discretion over who receives the money. There is little precedent for a program with a similar size and scope. But Republicans have countered that the funding would be handled appropriately and that a cash infusion of this scale was necessary to address a major economic crisis.
The situation remained in flux and several issues were unresolved Monday evening after four straight days of attempts to finalize a deal - including two procedural votes that Democrats blocked - it was possible that any provisional agreements would fall apart, senators and aides said. But some key players were sounding increasingly positive.
"We are getting there. We are very close," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said as he exited a late-afternoon meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which had been preceded by a meeting with Schumer.
Unresolved issues included several under the jurisdiction of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, related to student loans and other issues, according to one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. And negotiators were working on how to tailor large sums of money that was to be disbursed to the airline industry, state governments, and others.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, while leaving a Senate GOP leadership meeting Monday evening, said McConnell gave a positive report about the state of talks, suggesting some Democratic demands had been dropped or addressed.
"I understand the wish list is not getting bigger, it's getting shorter," Cornyn told reporters, explaining that Tuesday would be the earliest the emerging packaged could be voted on. "Even if they got a deal late tonight, there wouldn't be enough time to get it up and voted on."
Cornyn mentioned negotiations among the White House, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans and said they were keeping in touch about potential pitfalls that might imperil any final deal.
The upbeat assessments marked a positive turn after Democrats blocked the rescue bill earlier in the day. This was part of a rancorous chain of events with lawmakers venting fury about their failed efforts to address the pandemic's impact on the U.S. economy. Even lawmakers who are typically careful and measured erupted in anger at their colleagues because the process kept bogging down.
"This is unbelievable," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, exclaimed at one point.
Ahead of the procedural vote, Senators clashed angrily over delays that had bogged down the giant bill. Some lawmakers had hoped to reach an agreement three days ago, but talks kept breaking down during weekend negotiations. Meanwhile, the nation is reeling from the health consequences and economic pain inflicted by the virus.
Democrats have argued that the Senate GOP bill is disproportionately tilted toward helping companies and needs to extend more benefits to families and health-care providers. Republicans have countered that the bill offers unprecedented financial assistance to the entire economy and needed to be passed before more people lose their jobs. Some economists have projected that more than 3 million people were laid off last week as businesses and consumers pulled back, and those numbers are expected to grow.
The vote Monday was 49-46, well short of the 60 vote threshold needed to advance the legislation for a final debate.
"This has got to stop, and today is the day it has to stop," an exasperated McConnell said. "The country is out of time."
McConnell accused Democrats of holding up the sorely needed rescue package so they can try to add extraneous provisions sought by special interests and organized labor. Democrats have refused to support the key procedural vote that would have made it easier to pass the bill, with many complaining that the legislation did not include much transparency into which businesses could receive hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency loans.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the bill, which includes a huge $500 billion program for businesses, states, and cities makes the Senate look "more focused on the big corporations and the health of Wall Street than we are on the health care of the people in rural America and Main Street." The Trump administration would have wide latitude to disburse these loans and loan guarantees, a dynamic that has given numerous Democrats pause. The Senate bill would also include a $350 billion program to help small businesses meet payroll costs, which is meant to stem the rising tide of layoffs.
Speaking on the floor hours ahead of his conference call with fellow Democrats, Schumer insisted that he was continuing to negotiate in good faith with Mnuchin and hoped to secure a deal as long as he could ensure that worker protections are included and that the fund for industries has appropriate controls.
"We have an obligation to get the details right, get them done quickly," Schumer said. "That doesn't mean blindly accepting a Republican-only bill."
Markets fell Monday, and the Senate floor descended into an uproar as Collins sought recognition to speak, which Schumer objected to, prompting Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to exclaim, "This is bullshit!"
The fiery developments reflected rising tensions among lawmakers over the nation's predicament and what's happening in the Senate; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced Sunday that he has covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and four other GOP senators are quarantined. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., disclosed Monday that her husband is infected with the virus.
Despite the acrimony, negotiations continued. The White House and lawmakers were continuing to push ahead because of obvious signs that major parts of the U.S. economy are reeling. The Dow Jones industrial average has lost more than 10,000 points in six weeks. With more than 40,000 confirmed covid-19 cases in the United States, the impacts of the crisis were growing worse and worse.
States are directing residents to stay home to avoid more contagion, putting pressure on businesses who are losing workers and customers. Many of these companies have rushed to Washington in search of emergency assistance, and health-care providers are overrun with the need for testing kits and safety equipment.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., advised everyone to "assume the appropriate distance and take a deep breath." Several hours later, signs of optimism appeared from both major parties and White House officials.
As senators were clashing on one side of the Capitol on Monday, on the other side House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was holding a news conference to announce House Democrats' version of the stimulus bill. Pelosi's $2.5 trillion-plus bill would send $1,500 to individual Americans, pump money into the health-care system, unemployment insurance and schools and - according to a draft circulating Monday - require airlines and other companies that receive aid to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
"Democrats take responsibility for our workers," Pelosi said. "We require that any corporation that takes taxpayer dollars must protect their workers' wages and benefits - not CEO pay, stock buybacks or layoffs."
But if the House charts its own course on a competing piece of legislation, it could take longer to arrive at a bipartisan consensus that can pass both chambers and get signed into law.
The $500 billion in loan programs in the Senate bill includes $425 billion for companies, states and cities, though it doesn't prescribe many terms to dictate how the Treasury determines who receives the assistance. Another $50 billion would go to helping passenger airline companies, $8 billion for cargo air companies and $17 billion to help firms deemed important for national security.
At the insistence of Democrats, who were participating in drafting the bill before bipartisan talks broke down over the weekend, more than $100 billion is being included for hospitals and some $250 billion to boost up unemployment insurance. The sweeping economic package is designed to last for 10 to 12 weeks, after which the administration could revisit whether it would seek additional assistance from Congress.
The huge economic stimulus bill now under negotiation is Congress' third attempt to address the coronavirus crisis. As the scope of the crisis started coming into focus early this month, Congress passed $8.3 billion in emergency spending for the public health system. Then Mnuchin and Pelosi negotiated a $100-billion-plus package that included paid sick leave, a Medicaid expansion, free vaccines and more, which the Senate passed last week despite misgivings voiced by many Senate Republicans over the structure of the paid sick leave program.
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The Washington Post's Jeff Stein and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
This article was written by Erica Werner, Paul Kane, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis, reporters for The Washington Post.
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