McConnell: ‘Very close’ on rescue package topping $1T; Pence, wife test negative

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top-level negotiations between Congress and the White House pushed toward resolution late Saturday on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, as President Donald Trump urged a deal to steady a nation shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.

With a population on edge and financial markets teetering, all sides indicated a deal is within reach. At issue is how best to keep paychecks flowing for millions of workers abruptly sidelined by the crisis.

Talks also narrowed on a so-called Marshall Plan for hospitals as well as industry loans to airlines and others all but grounded by the virus outbreak and national shutdown. The post-World War II Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Western Europe.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced late Saturday all sides were “very close” to a bipartisan resolution.

McConnell instructed committee chairmen to assemble draft legislation. Officials put the price tag at nearly $1.4 trillion and said that with other measures from the Federal Reserve it could pump $2 trillion into the U.S. economy.

“We are poised to deliver the significant relief that Americans need with the speed that this crisis demands,” McConnell said.

Talks will resume Sunday morning when the top four congressional leaders of both parties are set to confer privately at the Capitol with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in hopes of striking a final accord.

A spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there is “not yet an agreement.” Spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats look forward to reading the draft and further negotiations.

“Everybody's working hard and they want to get to a solution that's the right solution, I think we're very close," Trump said at Saturday's briefing, striking a confident tone about the nation's ability to defeat the pandemic soon.

On Capitol Hill, the Senate convened the rare weekend session as negotiators raced to complete the package. The Senate's goal is to hold an initial vote Sunday and win Senate passage on Monday.

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket, businesses shutter and the financial markets are set to re-open Monday eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the healthcare crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

Trump has largely stayed out of the details, but said Saturday that he would be lobbying the lead negotiators.

On one topic, Trump appears to be agreeing with Democrats as Washington tries to steer clear of the politically toxic bailouts from the last economic crises.

Trump expressed a clear distaste for any industry, including the airlines, that would use federal assistance to buy back its own stock in an effort to increase profits. Banning stock buy-backs is one of Democrats’ top business priorities in the emerging package.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other top White House officials were on Capitol Hill for a second day of nonstop negotiations. But no announcement was expected.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been in talks with Mnuchin, returned to Washington on Saturday and was scheduled to join Sunday's meeting.

Negotiations are focused on providing direct relief to Americans, with one-time checks of $1,200, as well as ongoing payroll support and enhanced unemployment benefits for the newly out of work.

Talks are also focused on loans to airlines and other industries blindsided by the crisis, as well as possible aid to the states and billions for hospitals and healthcare providers on the front lines of the outbreak.

The emerging package builds on a GOP proposal but Democrats push for add-ons, including food security aid, small business loans and other measures for workers.

“We're making very good progress,” Schumer said late Saturday. “We're going to continue working though the night.”

On Saturday, Trump opened the daily virus briefing with a roll call of his administration's accomplishments, a week-in-review meant to rebut criticism that the White House was moving too slowly to combat the crisis.

The president pushed back against accusations that he was sluggish to act for fear of upsetting China, though he told aides last month that he had not wanted to alienate Beijing by criticizing its secretive handling of the initial outbreak.

Trump did not lose his temper, as he did the day before. But mixed, vague messaging still ruled the briefing.

For example, as hospitals across the nation report a dire shortage of supplies to care for an expected surge of patients, Vice President Mike Pence said the government was completing a half-billion-dollar order for masks. But none of the government officials at the briefing could suggest when the masks would reach medical facilities, a moment of confusion that caused Trump to grow visibly frustrated.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, tried not to over-promise the effectiveness or speed of medication that could possibly be used to treat the virus. After Trump had exited the briefing room, Fauci answered a question about Trump's tweet about the drugs by saying, “I'm not totally sure what the president was referring to."

Trump also sowed confusion about his use of the Defense Production Act to force American businesses to manufacture needed medical supplies, saying that while he invoked the act this week, he has not yet needed to utilize it to compel businesses to mobilize, despite the pronounced supply shortage.

Pence announced that, out of an abundance of caution, he and his wife, Karen, would be tested for the virus after a member of the vice president's staff had tested positive. The result for both was negative, Pence press secretary Katie Miller tweeted Saturday night.

Pence had said the staffer, who did not have close contact with either the president or vice president, was doing well.

The emerging rescue plan from Congress would be a striking intervention at enormous cost being crafted with a speed unseen since the 2008-09 financial crisis and recession.

It builds on Trump's request for Congress to “go big.”

A central element is now $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll. Companies with 500 or fewer employees could tap up to $10 million in forgivable small business loans to keep paychecks flowing.

That's on top of a proposal for one-time checks to all Americans, $1,200 per individual, $2,400 for couples, cut off at higher incomes.

Democrats are pushing for increased eligibility for unemployment insurance for those who jobs are simply disappearing.

For industry, the initial GOP plan called for $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries, which would have to be repaid.

Negotiators are still hammering out whether there will be money to the states, whose governors have requested billions, as well as how much will be going to hospitals and healthcare providers.

Trump acknowledged the outbreak was hurting his family's business of hotels and country clubs but said he did not know whether his business would be one of the many to seek government assistance.

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.
Officials in many countries are desperate to prevent — or at least limit — a repeat of what has happened in China and southern Europe. The coronavirus outbreak overwhelmed medical services in the central Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this year and now is pushing them to the limit in Italy, Spain and France.

Italy’s surging case numbers have frustrated health officials. Statements by authorities earlier on in the outbreak had raised hopes that new infections might soon start dropping off. But on Friday, officials reported further record increases, with 5,986 new cases and 627 new deaths. The country, which has Europe’s largest outbreak, now has at least 47,021 cases and 4,032 dead.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza called for a “great alliance” between citizens and institutions, saying “what counts more is the behavior of every individual.” Giuseppe Sala, mayor of Milan, capital of the hardest-stricken region of Lombardy, tried to rally the city’s 1.4 million citizens, tweeting that “by now, we have understood, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Germany's southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg on Saturday offered to take in patients from the neighboring French region of Alsace that's struggling with a surge of infections overwhelming hospitals.

Britain still lags behind Italy, Spain and France in the spread of the virus, but the country’s overstretched health system is creaking. The state-funded National Health Service has about 4,000 critical-care beds and some 5,000 ventilators, and officials say that's far fewer than will be needed as the number of cases spikes in the coming weeks. Britain, which has recorded 3,983 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 177 deaths, has already asked 65,000 retired nurses and doctors to return to work.

Workers near Moscow are rushing to build a clinic to treat hundreds of coronavirus patients as Russia prepares for a wave of infections. Placards in the style of Soviet propaganda posters have been erected near the site, with one showing Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pointing at the viewer and the slogan "Builders — Minutes count!"

China has been sending aid to several European countries, promoting its expertise and experience gained from fighting the outbreak at home. An Air China flight carrying 18 tons of medical supplies including hundreds of thousands of surgical and protection masks landed in the Greek capital, Athens, Saturday morning.

As the pandemic has eased in Asia, China and other parts of the region are now trying to avoid importing cases from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

China reported Saturday that its mainland had no new home-grown cases of the disease for the third straight day, but 41 imported ones in the previous 24-hour period.

Restrictions on movement are being eased gradually in China as it tries to restart the economy without bringing back the disease. Officials in Wuhan are permitting supermarkets, convenience stores and some other retail businesses to reopen from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. if they are in areas with no confirmed or suspected cases.

Turkey more than tripled the number of countries to which flights have been suspended to 68, as authorities banned picnics, barbecues and send-off gatherings for new soldiers.

Authorities in Cyprus turned away a boat carrying around 100 migrants, citing government directives banning the entry of foreign nationals to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Colombian President Iván Duque announced Friday night that everyone would be required to isolate in their homes for three weeks starting Tuesday. Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela already are in lockdown.

Some small relief came to the Madrid’s Severo Ochoa hospital on Saturday when an army emergency unit arrived to take 15 patients to a huge field hospital the military set up in a convention center in the capital.

Otherwise, the hospital is working over capacity and receiving help from the local community: An educational center donated a load of masks and gloves. A group of football fan clubs brought hundreds of bottles of water.

For hospital spokesman Jorge Rivera, equally important is the support that normal citizens are showing the nation’s health workers each evening at 8 p.m. when Spaniards open their windows and applaud, shout, flash lights, and sometimes blast music to show their appreciation for their efforts.

“For us, it is a boost of adrenaline, for our morale,” Rivera said from work. “It says that we are all in this together, working to get through this emergency and recover our lives.”

Economic rescue balloons past $1 trillion as talks resume
Negotiators from Congress and the White House were resuming top-level talks Saturday on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, racing to strike a deal after President Donald Trump unleashed fury on those questioning his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It was an extraordinary moment in Washington: Congress undertaking the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the U.S. economy and an angry president lashing out at all comers. All while the global pandemic and the nationwide shutdown grip an anxious, isolated population bracing for a healthcare crisis and looming recession.

When one reporter asked Trump what he would tell a worried nation Friday, the president snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”

On Capitol Hill, key congressional and White House officials converged Saturday for more talks. The sweeping aid package of paychecks for suddenly jobless Americans, money for hospitals and aid to industry is all but certain to swell far beyond the initial $1 trillion price tag. Combined with other actions by the Federal Reserve, it could be a $2 trillion pump to the economy, officials said Saturday.

The Senate was convening the rare weekend session with the aim of drafting the package Saturday, holding an initial vote Sunday and winning Senate passage on Monday.

“We need to act with urgency, we need to act with significance, we need to act with boldness,” White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland told reporters.

Despite the enormous pressure on Washington to swiftly act, the challenges are apparent. Lawmakers and administration officials labored late into the evening Friday over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.

"Everybody is working very hard,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, exiting one closed-door session and heading into another.

While key negotiators said they made progress during the daylong talks, they failed to hit an end-of-day deadline Friday to strike a deal. Talks broke around 10:30 p.m.

Mnuchin began negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and senators from both parties using McConnell's GOP offer as a starting point.

“Our nation needs a major next step, and we need it fast,” McConnell said earlier in the day to an empty chamber, the iconic U.S. Capitol closed to visitors.

But Mnuchin also conferred privately Friday with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the two leaders pressed for Democratic priorities. Pelosi late Friday called the GOP plan a “non-starter.”

At one point, Schumer told reporters, “We're making good progress.” But Schumer acknowledged trying to wrap up "tonight is hard.”

The GOP plan aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and billions to small businesses to pay idled workers during the global pandemic.

But Democrats say McConnell's plan is insufficient, arguing for greater income support for workers and a “Marshall Plan” for the U.S. healthcare industry, which is preparing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.

At the White House, Trump welcomed the stimulus plan, believing it is needed to stabilize the economy.

But Trump spent much of Friday's daily briefing in a fury, an angry president lashing out at reporters' questions.

At times, he seemed to refuse to want to hear the reality of an increasingly dire situation. It was when one reporter noted the hard facts in the U.S. — that more than 200 are dead, more than 14,000 infected and millions scared — that he snapped back.

Trump also sowed further confusion about whether he is using the powers of the Defense Production Act to force American businesses to manufacture needed medical supplies.

In Friday phone calls with Trump, Schumer said he specifically implored the president to invoke the Korean War-era act to ramp up production of desperately needed ventilators and other gear.

Trump told the Democratic leader he would do it — and then Schumer said the president could be heard yelling to someone in his office “get it done."

But Trump told reporters he had put the order he invoked Wednesday “into gear” Thursday night. He said he had directed companies to launch production. But then he walked it back, saying, “You know, so far, we haven't had to” because companies are volunteering.

The administration also announced a further closing of the nation’s border, as the U.S. and Mexico agreed to limit crossings to all but essential travel and trade, while the U.S. moved to restrict entry to anyone without documentation.

Unveiled Thursday, McConnell's rescue proposal from Republicans builds on Trump's request for Congress to “go big.”

The GOP plan proposes $300 billion for small businesses to keep idled workers on payroll and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries. It also seeks to relax a just-enacted family and medical leave mandate on small to medium-sized businesses from an earlier rescue package.

It puts McConnell's imprint on the GOP approach after the Senate leader left earlier negotiations to Pelosi and Mnuchin, which angered some of his GOP senators feeling cut out of the final product.

Keeping paychecks flowing for workers not at work is a top priority for both Democrats and Republicans as jobless claims skyrocket.

But how best to send direct payments to Americans — as one-time stipends, ongoing payroll support or unemployment checks — is a crucial debate.

Under McConnell's approach, small businesses with 500 or fewer employees would be able to tap up to $10 million in forgivable loans from the federal government to continue cutting paychecks.

Democrats prefer sending the money to workers via the existing unemployment insurance system. Schumer called it “unemployment insurance on steroids.”

Both income support approaches have benefits and drawbacks, lawmakers said. Republicans say their plan would keep workers linked to employers, for easy recall once the crisis abates. Democrats argue the unemployment system provides a ready-made distribution channel, though states could also become overwhelmed by the surge of jobless claims.

Meanwhile, industries of all kinds are lining up for help.

As the Senate chairmen hammered out the details — and House chairmen funneled their input — the total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.

The House, which adjourned last weekend, is not expected to resume until the new package is ready.

Lawmakers on conference calls with leaders this week said they preferred not to board airplanes amid the virus outbreak. Despite calls to change the rules, Congress does not have a mechanism in place for remote voting.

Trump has already signed into law a $100 billion-plus bill to boost testing for the coronavirus and guarantee paid sick leave for millions of workers hit by it. Earlier, Trump signed an initial $8.3 billion package from Congress.

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.

Turkey announces 12 more coronavirus deaths

Turkey has announced the death of 12 more patients, bringing the death toll from the novel coronavirus to 21.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter the number of infections has risen to 947, with 277 new cases of COVID-19 detected Saturday.

The ministry also announced a 15-minute rapid test kit was being distributed across Turkey.

Ankara took its strictest measures so far Saturday, banning people over 65 and those with chronic health problems from leaving their homes. The interior ministry ordered all restaurants shut to customers except for deliveries and pickups. Earlier, the ministry banned picnics and barbecues as Turkish citizens ignored warnings to remain at home.

Brazil says 18 people have died from coronavirus

Brazil's health ministry says 18 people have died so far from the new coronavirus, with 1,128 infected in Latin America's largest nation.

The state of Sao Paulo alone has recorded 15 deaths, six of them reported on Saturday. That led Sao Paulo state Gov. João Doria to announce a two-week, statewide partial shutdown — a first in Brazil. Bars, restaurants and nonessential shops may not open, but people will be allowed to go outside.

38 positive for coronavirus in NYC jails

At least 38 people have tested positive for coronavirus in New York City jails, including at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, the board that oversees the city's jail system said Saturday.

In a letter to criminal justice leaders, Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman wrote that at least 58 other people were currently being monitored in contagious disease and quarantine units.

“It is likely these people have been in hundreds of housing areas and common areas over recent weeks and have been in close contact with many other people in custody and staff,” Sherman warned, predicting a sharp rise in the number of infections.

“The best path forward to protecting the community of people housed and working in the jails is to rapidly decrease the number of people housed and working in them.”

In the past six days, she wrote, the board learned that at least 12 Department of Correction employees, five Correctional Health Services employees, and 21 inmates have tested positive for the virus.

The city's jail agency and its city-run healthcare provider did not respond to messages seeking comment on the letter. On Friday, the city's Department of Corrections said just one inmate had been diagnosed with coronavirus, along with seven jail staff members.

New York has consistently downplayed the number of infections, The Associated Press has found in conversations with current and former inmates.

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States — more than anywhere in the world — and there are growing fears that an outbreak could spread rapidly through a vast network of federal and state prisons, county jails and detention centers.

It’s a tightly packed, fluid population that is already grappling with high rates of health problems and, when it comes to the elderly and the infirm, elevated risks of serious complications. With limited capacity nationally to test for COVID-19, men and women inside worry that they are last in line when showing flu-like symptoms, meaning that some may be infected without knowing it.

The first positive tests from inside prisons and jails started tricking out just over a week ago, with less than two dozen officers and staff infected in other facilities from California and Michigan to Pennsylvania.

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, and even death.

The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases may take three to six weeks to recover.

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