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U.S. Congress still awaits $2 trillion coronavirus aid deal

CoronavirusMar 24, 2020 09:24PM ET
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3/3 © Reuters. U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin walks to meeting for a coronavirus relief package in Washington 2/3

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans in the divided U.S. Congress said they were close to a deal on a $2 trillion stimulus package to limit the coronavirus pandemic's economic toll, but a vote on the bill on Tuesday looked increasingly unlikely as talks stretched on.

"If the words all magically came together, we could vote early this evening. But my guess is that it’ll probably be sometime tomorrow morning," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy told reporters on Tuesday evening.

The $2 trillion proposal would include a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount to send direct payments of up to $3,000 to millions of U.S. families, as well as $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $75 billion for hospitals.

It aims to stem the heavy economic impact of a pandemic that has killed more than 660 people in the United States and sickened more than 50,000, shuttered thousands of businesses, thrown millions out of work and led states to order 100 million people - nearly a third of the population - to stay at home.

The money at stake in the stimulus legislation amounts to more than what the U.S. government spends on national defense, scientific research, highway construction and other discretionary programs.

Assistance to states was among issues negotiators discussed on Tuesday, according to a senior official from President Donald Trump's administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said negotiators had agreed to more oversight provisions for the proposed $500 billion to help hard-hit industries, resolving one sticking point.

The latest version would increase unemployment benefits by up to $600 a week, ensuring that many who lose their jobs would not see a drop in income, according to a Democratic aide. U.S. jobless benefits vary by state, but currently are up to $450 a week, below the poverty line for a family of four.

The bill calls for an inspector general and a bipartisan congressional panel to monitor the industrial aid, sources said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the administration's point man in the stimulus talks, would have to tell lawmakers about what companies were tapping the aid, according to the administration official. Companies would face restrictions on stock buybacks and executive pay.

Negotiators were also near an agreement to include $32 billion in grants to passenger and cargo airlines, sources said. They would have to choose between accepting grants or loans but could not receive both.

Democrats have twice blocked attempts to advance a Republican-authored stimulus bill in the Senate, saying it did not provide enough money for states and hospitals, lacked sufficient aid for unemployed Americans and provided inadequate supervision of the massive fund to aid big businesses.

Wall Street bounced back on Tuesday from three-year lows on hopes the massive bipartisan stimulus would be announced.

Trump, who is campaigning for re-election on Nov. 3, has said he wants Americans to return to work more quickly by easing a public health clampdown intended to slow the virus' spread. State officials have warned that step could mean more deaths.

'ALL OF THE NONSENSE'

Republicans, Democrats and top Trump aides have negotiated for days over the package, which would be the third and by far largest to address the crisis if it is backed by the Senate and the Democratic-led House and signed by the Republican president.

Pelosi said on MSNBC that the House could unanimously pass the legislation once it clears the Senate, but might also try to change it. That would lead to further delays and possibly require House members to return to Washington.

Some Democrats on a conference call grumbled about being asked to pass the bill by unanimous consent. One moderate, Representative Stephanie Murphy, said the bill should contain only provisions directly related to the pandemic response.

Representative Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's top House deputy, said there would be one or two more coronavirus relief packages in the weeks to come.

"Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy," Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the $2 trillion stimulus bill would work in tandem with $4 trillion in bolstered lending power by the Federal Reserve.

Pelosi has introduced her own $2.5 trillion counterproposal that also includes $4 billion to allow states to conduct the November presidential and congressional elections by mail.

Pelosi's legislation would likely be irrelevant if a bipartisan deal is forged in the Senate.

Republicans normally hold a slim 53-47 Senate majority, meaning they need Democratic support to garner the 60 votes required to advance most legislation.

But the coronavirus has given Democrats even more leverage. Republican Senator Rand Paul tested positive for the coronavirus and four other Republicans are also unable to vote because they were exposed to Paul or others with it.

U.S. Congress still awaits $2 trillion coronavirus aid deal
 

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