WASHINGTON — Congressional and White House officials said Tuesday they were closing out final details of unprecedented legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses and workers facing ruin from the Coronavirus pandemic.
After days of pressure, unusual partisanship in a crisis, and intense haggling over the fine print, negotiators appeared almost done with a nearly $2 trillion bill to respond to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called “the most serous threat to Americans’ health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America’s jobs and prosperity that we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”
Yet even as the public-health crisis deepened, President Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.
“We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought,” he told a Fox News town hall. He said he’d like to have the country “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, April 12. Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations after a tumultuous but productive day on Monday. While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote appeared likely on Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.
“We’re trying to finalize all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we’re making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said.
Ravaged in recent days, stocks rocketed as negotiators signaled a resolution was in sight.
At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries.
A one-time payment of $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, would go directly to the public.
A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.
Democrats said the package would help replace the salary of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a one-time $600 add-on.
Opening the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell combined optimism about the chances for a deal with frustration at the delays — and a sober view of the crisis at hand.
“The urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone,” he said. On the negotiations, he said: “It’s taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here.” Still, “we are very close. We are close to a bill that takes our bold Republican framework, integrates further ideas from both parties, and delivers huge progress.”
Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund, and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.
To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight Board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the TARP bank rescue, officials said.