WASHINGTON (AP) – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration are laboring to finish a coronavirus aid package Friday that would fast-track federal aid to anxious Americans and calm teetering financial markets amid the global crisis.
Central to the effort is free testing for the virus and guaranteed sick pay for workers who are taking time away from jobs, along with an infusion of dollars to handle unemployment benefits and boost food programs for children, families and seniors.
Pelosi and President Donald Trumpâ€™s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin both indicated a deal was within reach after days of around-the-clock negotiations, with expectations of a Friday announcement. The House could then swiftly vote. Republican leaders are reviewing the details.
Trump has yet to speak publicly about the deal, but tweeted he will hold a press conference at the White House at 3 p.m. â€œ Topic: CoronaVirus!â€ he said.
Earlier Friday, Mnuchin sounded an optimistic note. â€œI think we’re very close to getting this done,â€ he said in an appearance on CNBC.
On the COVID-19 illness, Mnuchin cautioned that â€œpeople should understand the numbers are going to go up before they go down.â€
Providing sick pay for workers is a crucial element of federal efforts to stop the rapid spread of the infection. Officials warn that the nation’s healthcare system could quickly become overwhelmed with gravely sick patients, as suddenly happened in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.
The ability to ensure paychecks will keep flowing – for people who stay home as a preventative measure or because they’re feeling ill or caring for others – can help assure Americans they will not fall into financial hardship.
â€œWe’re in an emergency, and we’re trying to respond as fast as we can,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., as lawmakers filed in and out of Pelosi’s office on Friday.
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.â€ Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke again early Friday.
The potential deal between Congress and the White House would cap a tumultuous week in which Washington strained for a comprehensive response to an outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health care systems.
Trump has struggled to show he’s on top of the crisis, after giving 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 have been cratering.
In one welcome announcement, the administration said Friday it is awarding $1.3 million to two companies trying to develop rapid COVID-19 tests that could detect within an hour whether a person is positive for the new coronavirus.
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, 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.
â€œWe 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.
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 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.
Mnuchin, however, said on Friday that the president remains committed to pursuing the payroll tax cut. “It is a giant stimulus.â€
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 summerâ€™s Olympics in Japan for a year, too.
Trump said he will halt his signature campaign rallies, telling reporters he needs a â€œlittle separation until such time as this goes away.â€ Democratic presidential rivals Joe 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.
White House officials, including representatives for Ivanka Trump, have not responded to questions about whether they intend to be tested or self-quarantine.
The White House has insisted officials are following CDC guidelines and that â€œthere is currently no indication to test patients without symptoms, and only people with prolonged close exposure to confirmed positive cases should self-quarantine.â€
Barr, meanwhile, was staying home Friday, though he â€œfelt great and wasn’t showing any symptoms,â€ according to his spokeswoman Kerri Kupec. She said the CDC did not recommend testing at this point.
In addition, just days after meeting Trump and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the communications chief for Brazil’s president, FÃ¡bio 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. Scott said he was isolating himself. Trump, 73, said he was unworried.
â€œWe had dinner in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with the entire delegation,â€ Trump told reporters at the White House. â€œBut we did nothing very unusual. We sat next to each other for a period of time.â€ Asked whether he should be tested, Trump replied, â€œI am not concerned.â€
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the White House is aware of public reports that a member of the Brazilian delegation tested positive. Confirmatory testing is pending.
â€œBoth the President and Vice President had almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time,” Grisham said in a statement. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was also at Trumpâ€™s club on the weekend, joined a growing list of lawmakers who have chosen to isolate themselves as a precaution. He announced Friday that he also met with the Australian official who has now tested positive.
GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who had previously isolated himself after a potential exposure at a conservative conference in Washington, said Friday he met with a Spanish official and is now self-quarantining.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm at the U.S. response, and especially over how few patients have been tested.
â€œWeâ€™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.
â€œWe will have considerably more testing in the future, but you don’t wait for testing,â€ Fauci said on â€CBS This Morning.” He said school closings and similar measures are “generally an appropriate approach.â€
â€œWe’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,â€ Fauci said on ABC’s â€œGood Morning America.”
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. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, about 81,000 people have been diagnosed and about 64,000 have recovered.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Alan Fram, Lauran Neergaard, Martin Crutsinger, Laurie Kellman, Michael Balsamo and Kevin Freking in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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