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Congress weighs new wave of massive emergency aid to address coronavirus

  • By Claudia Grisales, Kelsey Snell and Susan Davis/NPR
An ambulance sits outside the U.S. Capitol Monday.

 Drew Angerer / Getty Images

An ambulance sits outside the U.S. Capitol Monday.

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The Trump administration is asking Congress for $850 billion in new economic relief as lawmakers begin work on the next phase of coronavirus relief efforts.

Details of the White House request were not immediately available but the package is mainly focused on tax cuts, according to a person familiar with the package.

The request comes as a number of lawmakers are calling a quick solution for some of the country’s increasingly dire economic concerns. There is growing bipartisan talk, including among many conservative Republicans, of the need to speed direct cash aid to individuals and families.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is calling for any new aid to meet three criteria: assist individuals and families with financial challenges, secure the country’s economy and economic foundation and ready the healthcare system and support medical professionals.

“We’re crafting the major legislation that the American people deserve in the face of this major challenge,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

The Senate is preparing to vote this week on a smaller relief bill that has already been approved in the House. That legislation includes paid sick and family leave for some workers, extended unemployment benefits,and emergency funds for food security programs.

McConnell also committed to the Senate remaining in session to pass broader relief.

“It is my intention that the Senate will not adjourn until we have passed significant and bold new steps, above and beyond what the House passed, to help our strong nation and our strong underlying economy weather this storm.”

House leaders were forced to approve a lengthy technical correction to its legislation Monday. McConnell has predicted there will be bipartisan support to pass that bill in the senate, but noted on Tuesday the need for “a broader package that includes more and broader small business relief.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow have met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss coronavirus legislation, according to a senior congressional aide. Mnuchin is expected to provide more information on the administration’s proposal to Republican Senators at a regularly scheduled Tuesday luncheon.

McConnell has already said he is in communication with the chairmen of eight committees about additional legislation that will be required and bipartisanship will be key. And the next steps entail additional legislation providing financial aid to individuals, shoring up small businesses and protecting the health care system.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., jump started specifics for a comprehensive new plan, proposing a $750 billion to raise funding for unemployment insurance, coronavirus treatment and emergency childcare assistance. The plan also includes student loan and housing payment assistance, aid to small businesses and expansion of hospital and treatment capacity.

The price tag eclipses the first emergency coronavirus aid bill of roughly $8 billion approved earlier this month to address response efforts. Late Monday, the House sent a second bill to address paid sick leave and testing to the Senate.

“We need big, bold, immediate federal action to deal with the crisis. The kinds of targeted measures we are putting together will mainline money into the economy and directly into the hands of families that need it most,” Schumer said on the Senate floor in outlining the plans. “Importantly, this proposal will ensure that our medical professionals have the resources — including physical space and equipment — they need to provide treatment and keep Americans safe.”

The talks came on the same day the stock market shed nearly 3,000 points in its biggest daily decline in more than 30 years and President Trump’s administration announced new, stringent guidelines to tighten public gatherings to 10 people or less.

Senators are also continuing to call for a variety of targeted provisions as the impact of the pandemic worsens. For example, Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney says the government should immediately issue $1,000 to every American so families can manage short-term obligations. He’s also proposing small business grants, aid for higher education students and deferring student loan payments for new graduates.

But Romney noted the Senate needs to approve the second aid package first.

“I will be pushing these measures as Senate discussions continue about an additional relief package,” he said in a statement.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton released a plan Tuesday modeled on economic relief that was approved in response to the 2001 9/11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

His proposal includes a tax-rebate check of $1,000 for every adult tax filer making less than $100,000 per year and $500 for each dependent. Married couples making less than $200,000 per year would be eligible for a $2,000 rebate.

The money would be provided regardless of whether a family owes the government money at tax time or is receiving a tax refund.

Cotton is also calling for a low interest loans for businesses and temporary expansion of public assistance programs like unemployment insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program that has replaced traditional welfare.

The furious pace of proposals comes as the spreading virus continues to pose a direct threat to Capitol building operations, as several lawmaker offices remain closed as a result of at least two coronavirus cases among current, D.C-based Hill staffers.

The House, meanwhile, remains on a planned recess this week, which could be extended. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who herself returned to her home state of California on Saturday, urged members to allow as many staff as possible to telecommute in the interim.

So far, no elected member of Congress has disclosed testing positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by novel coronavirus. However, at least two senators — GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida — remain under self-quarantine after exposure to individuals who tested positive. And over recent days, at least four lawmaker offices have disclosed coronavirus exposure.

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe contributed to this report

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