Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving swiftly toward House passage of a coronavirus aid package possibly this week as Congress rebuffs President Donald Trump’s proposed payroll tax break and focuses instead on sick pay and other resources to more immediately help workers hit by the crisis.
Pelosi plans to unveil the measure Wednesday, with voting possible as soon as Thursday, after talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with the Democratic leader. Mnuchin and Pelosi spoke again early Wednesday to discuss proposals for the package.
“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. “So paid family leave, making sure the tests are free to everybody, boosting unemployment insurance and so forth. That’s immediate. That’s tomorrow.”
Congress is racing to take the lead as lawmakers and the Trump administration face mounting pressure to work more vigorously to contain the coronavirus outbreak and respond to the financial fallout. Lawmakers from both major political parties roundly dismissed Trump’s call for a payroll tax holiday through the end of the year and panned other corporate tax breaks floated for specific industries.
House Democrats met behind closed doors to finish crafting the package. As they did, 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.
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.
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. A spokesman for Pelosi said the California Democrat plans on unveiling the measure Wednesday after receiving proposals from key committee chairs and further consultations with Mnuchin.
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.
She vowed this week to remain in session to confront the crisis, calling Congress the last to leave.
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.
White House officials have been blindsided by the president’s sudden moves. As Trump headed to Capitol Hill, two administration officials said the proposals he was putting in play had not been completed. They were unauthorized to discuss the planning and requested anonymity.
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.”
In Washington, there were mixed signals about the public mood regarding the coronavirus. Tourists still arrived for visits while marquee events, including this weekend’s Gridiron Club dinner, an annual mingling of political Washington, were postponed.
At the U.S. Capitol, some senators said they resisted shaking Trump’s hand when he arrived for lunch. Lawmakers were given new instructions on how to protect themselves, with the House’s attending physician asking them to stop shaking hands or touching people during greetings. He recommended the split-fingers Star Trek greeting instead.
Crowds are the norm in the Capitol and handshakes are coin of the realm, even between political foes. But about a half-dozen lawmakers, including Trump confidants, have placed themselves in quarantine after being exposed to someone who had the virus, and the norm has been upended.
GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who self-quarantined after having traveled with the president from Florida on Air Force One on Monday, said he had tested negative for the disease but said he would remain quarantined as a precaution. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C, remained on quarantine.
But House and Senate leaders have made it clear there will be no voting by proxy. Quarantined lawmakers will miss votes.