WASHINGTON – An effort in the Senate to move forward with a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus package to combat the coronavirus crisis has stalled for the second day in a row over continued disagreements between Republicans and Democrats.
The largely party-line vote (with Republican for and Democrats against) was 49-46 to end debate and move forward. Sixty votes were needed to advance the measure for a final floor vote.
The measure is designed to provide direct payments to most Americans, throw a lifeline to small businesses shuttered across the country, and rescue large industries, such as the airlines, battered by the coronavirus crisis. But Democrats want more protections for workers from layoffs and loss of heath coverage, more money for states to deal with the crisis, and more aid for students facing student debt repayment.
After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell angrily dismissed the Democratic opposition as “procedural obstruction” that could delay a vote on the measure until the end of the week.
“Democrats take responsibility for our workers who require that any corporation that takes taxpayer dollars must protect their workers wages and benefits, not CEO pay, stock buybacks or layoffs,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the Senate vote. “The Senate Republican bill put corporations first, but because of the insistence of leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats, progress has been made.”
– Ledyard King
State Department tracking 13,000 Americans stranded abroad
The State Department is tracking at least 13,500 Americans who are stranded abroad and need U.S. help getting back to the United States, a senior official told reporters on Monday.
The State Department has already brought about 5,000 Americans home from 17 countries, and officials are hoping to bring another 1,600 U.S. citizens back this week from countries across the globe.
“We’re looking at 16 or so flights in the next five days and about 1,600 passengers identified for those flights with room for more,” said this official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“It has been a lot of hard work and it is going to be a lot of hard work going forward,” this person said. “We are devoting all of our resources to this.”
The State Department has set up a call center to help marooned Americans, but officials say the best way to get on the agency’s radar is to register online with the agency’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, called STEP.
“The only way to find someone is if they are registering with STEP. That’s how we build the manifests for these flights,” the person said.
The call center phone number is 202-501-4444 for those overseas and 888-407-4747 for those calling within the U.S. on behalf of stranded family or friends.
– Deirdre Shesgreen
Pentagon to deploy field hospitals to New York, Seattle
The Pentagon plans to deploy field hospitals to New York and Seattle later this week to help those cities deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday.
The Army’s largest field hospitals can accommodate 248 beds, he said. More of the mobile facilities will be offered in coming weeks. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, the Mercy, is set to sail to Los Angeles as soon as today. The USS Comfort, the Navy’s other hospital ship, is being repaired. It is scheduled to sail to New York in April.
The disease has forced the military to cancel some training exercises, and Esper acknowledged that the virus could affect the Pentagon’s readiness to conduct combat missions if it worsens. He said 133 troops were being treated for the illness.
At the Pentagon, about 60% of the workforce has been telecommuting, Esper said. Security has tightened, he said, and screening of visitors for fever may begin soon.
– Tom Vanden Brook
Rand Paul: people without symptoms need testing
A day after announcing he became the first senator to contract coronavirus, Sen. Rand Paul urged his colleagues on Capitol Hill to get tested for COVID-19 as well.
“I believe we need more testing immediately, even among those without symptoms,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement shared with reporters. “I had no symptoms and no specific encounter with a COVID-19 positive person. I had, however, traveled extensively in the U.S. and was required to continue doing so to vote in the Senate. That, together with the fact that I have a compromised lung, led me to seek testing. Despite my positive test result, I remain asymptomatic for COVID-19.”
Federal guidelines discourage testing for those who are not showing symptoms even if they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive or is believed to have been exposed.
“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a tee, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” Paul said. “The current guidelines would not have called for me to get tested nor quarantined. It was my extra precaution, out of concern for my damaged lung, that led me to get tested.”
Paul is one three members of Congress, including Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah who have announced they’ve tested positive.
– Ledyard King
‘This is unbelievable’: Senators get testy over stimulus delay
Tensions rose on the Senate floor Monday as lawmakers struggled to reach an agreement on a historic bailout package while the health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus continued to escalate.
“Take a deep breath,” Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said as senators bickered over whose fault it is that there’s no deal yet. “Everyone is emotional at this moment on both sides of the aisle. But we have a job to do.”
Durbin’s comments came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went after his Democratic counterparts – particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
McConnell blamed Pelosi for undermining negotiations, saying things were going fine until she got involved.
“Get with the program,” McConnell said. “It’s time to pass historic relief. The country doesn’t have time for these political games.”
Durbin said he knows Pelosi “really unnerves a lot of people on that side of the aisle.” But, he said Pelosi wanting to be part of negotiations “is not an outrageous idea.”
At one point, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blocked a routine request to speak from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“Oh, come on,” Collins said. “This is unbelievable.”
Schumer said he objected to get clarity on the schedule as he continues to negotiate changes Democrats want to make to GOP package.
– Maureen Groppe
Pelosi unveils counter-offer to GOP stimulus bill
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled on Monday a counter-offer to the GOP stimulus proposal that includes priorities congressional Democrats have been pushing for in round-the-clock negotiations with GOP leaders and the Trump administration.
Requiring President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to order private companies to manufacture respirators, masks and other needed equipment. Providing more workers guaranteed paid family and medical leave. Using nearly $40 billion to help states stabilize school funding and help colleges continue operating during the crisis. Giving states billions in grant funding to help hold elections, including expanding early, absentee and mail voting.
Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Pelosi said the bill Democrats would introduce this afternoon would be “worker-oriented, not giving away the store” to corporations.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blamed Pelosi for undermining negotiations on a nearly $2 trillion package designed to provide direct payments to most Americans, throw a lifeline to small businesses, and rescue large industries, such as the airlines, battered by the coronavirus crisis.
“We were this close and then the speaker of the House flew back from San Francisco (Sunday) and turned this into this left-wing episode of Supermarket Sweep,” he said, referring to the TV game show where contestants race through a grocery store grabbing items before time runs out. “Unrelated issues left and right.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer remained optimistic a deal would be reached Monday.
“We’re very close to reaching a deal. Very close. Our goal is to reach a deal today. And we’re hopeful, even confident, that we will meet that goal,” said Schumer, D-N.Y. But, he added, “We have the obligation to get the details right.”
– Ledyard King and Maureen Groppe
Maryland, Massachusetts, Indiana tighten coronavirus measures
Republican governors in Maryland and Massachusetts on Monday ordered the closure of non-essential businesses, stopping short of shelter-in-place orders but taking the most drastic actions to date in both states.
The Maryland order goes into effect 5 p.m. EDT, while the Massachusetts order begins Tuesday at noon and extends to April 7.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he felt the measure was necessary because too many people were ignoring his order to avoid crowds of 10 or more, “literally endangering the lives” of others.
The executive orders in both states do not include industries deemed essential in guidelines issued last week by the federal government such as health care, food, agriculture, energy, first responders, transportation and public works. Liquor stores will also be exempt and restaurants can continue to serve to-go food.
“By taking this action now, we can significantly improve our position in this fight to slow down the spread of this virus,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said.
He added: “There’s been a lot of talk about a government mandating people shelter in their homes. I do not believe I can or should order U.S. citizens to be confined to their homes days on end. It doesn’t make sense from a public health point of view and it’s not realistic.”
In Massachusetts, there have been 646 confirmed cases of the coronaries virus and five deaths. Maryland has 288 confirmed cases.
In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered his state’s residents to remain in their homes except for certain permitted activities, such as caring for others and ordering supplies.
– William Cummings and Joey Garrison
67 House members call for remote voting
Dozens of House lawmakers are calling on House leaders to adopt a temporary rule that allows remote voting by members during national emergencies, such as the current coronavirus crisis.
“My constituents need a voice in Congress right now,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said after he and 66 other members asked the Rules Committee to make the change. “It is critical that no matter how this crisis develops, I can continue to advocate for working families in my district—no matter where I am physically. And every Member of Congress should be able to do the same.”
The request to the Rules Committee, which is examining the issue, comes a day after Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s announcement that he tested positive for COVID-19 rattled the Senate. Nearly three dozen congressional lawmakers have announced steps to self-quarantine, or otherwise isolate themselves as a precaution.
North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer backed the change as well, tweeting that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.”
– Ledyard King
Fed says it will purchase securities to support markets
Pressure was building on Congress to break its logjam on a coronavirus rescue package.
Stocks slid again Monday despite the Federal Reserve’s decision to launch an expansion of lending programs to help the economy.
A week after the U.S. markets posted their worst week since the financial crisis, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down as much as 500 points in the opening minutes of trading.
The Fed said it plans to purchase an unlimited amount of Treasurys and mortgage securities in a bid to support financial markets. It also said that it would purchase commercial mortgage-backed securities as part of an expansion in its asset purchases, known in the market as quantitative easing.
“We’ve got a lot of promise from the Fed, but they’re still going to need help from Congress,” says Scott Colyer, chief executive at Advisors Asset Management. “Does the Fed’s latest move solve our virus problem? No. Does it solve our unemployment problem? No. But it does allow markets to function. At the end of last week, we were sorely in need of that.”
– Jessica Menton and Ledyard King
On anniversary of signing, Obama says ACA needed more than ever
Former President Barack Obama recognized the 10-year-anniversary of his signing of the Affordable Care Act Monday in a tweet about the significance of the landmark law to the current health care crisis.
“It’s still under attack right when we need care the most,” Obama tweeted. “We have to protect it, build on it, until we cover everyone.”
The law expanding health insurance coverage and protections is once again in the courts, under a challenge brought by Republican attorneys general that is supported by the Trump administration.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who famously described the law as a “big (expletive) deal” in a private comment that was picked up by a microphone at the bill signing ceremony, sent a letter to Trump and the lead GOP attorneys general Monday urging them to drop the lawsuit. Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump in the fall.
Trump was asked Sunday at the daily White House briefing on the coronavirus whether he would reconsider his position because of the pandemic.
“What we want to do is get rid of the bad health care and put in a great health care,” Trump said.
The administration has not put forward an alternative to ACA after Republicans in Congress were unable to pass their bill.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which has already upheld the law twice, will take up the latest suit in their next term. It’s likely to be scheduled for oral argument in the fall and a decision in 2021.
– Maureen Groppe
Klobuchar’s husband hospitalized with COVID-19
The husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia, the Minnesota Democrat and former presidential candidate announced Monday.
Klobuchar said she is not getting tested for the virus, on the advice of her doctor, because she and her husband have not been together for the past two weeks and she is outside the 14-day period for getting sick.
“As everyone is aware, there are test shortages for people who need them everywhere and I don’t qualify to get one under any standard,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
She said her husband, John Bessler, professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, immediately quarantined himself when he started to feel sick even though he thought it was just a cold.
But his high temperature and bad cough persisted. When he started coughing up blood, he got tested and was checked into a Virginia hospital because his blood showed low oxygen levels, among other concerns. Bessler is now receiving oxygen but is not on a ventilator, according to Klobuchar’s statement.
“I love my husband so very much and not being able to be there at the hospital by his side is one of the hardest things about this disease,” Klobuchar said. She and their daughter, Abigail, have been “constantly calling and texting and emailing.”
Bessler is the first congressional spouse who is known to have COVID-19.
Three members of Congress – Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah – have announced they’ve tested positive.
– Maureen Groppe
Pentagon: COVID-19 cases nearly double over weekend
The Pentagon reported Monday that cases of coronavirus had nearly doubled to 243 troops, their family members and civilian employees.
That’s an increase of 119 patients since Friday when the number of cases totaled 124.
On Sunday, the Navy announced that three special warfare sailors training in Washington state had tested positive for the disease. They join a Navy commando who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last month.
Of the 243 COVID-19 cases, 133 are troops, seven of whom are hospitalized. Over the weekend, the Pentagon also reported its first death, that of a contract employee. So far, four troops and one civilian employee have recovered.
– Tom Vanden Brook
Trump signals he may lift federal coronavirus guidelines
President Donald Trump signaled in a tweet overnight that he is considering lifting social distancing guidelines that may be slowing the spread of the coronavirus but are hurting the economy.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump posted on Twitter just before midnight in Washington. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Public health officials, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have recommended Americans work from home when they can and not congregate at restaurants or other businesses. The administration rolled out a 15-day plan on March 16 to “bend the curve” of new coronavirus cases.
Many of those officials, including Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have said that two weeks is “likely not enough time” to halt the spread of the virus in the country.
“If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus,” Trump said at the time. “And we’re going to have a big celebration all together.”
Trump retweeted two users Monday morning who used similar language to urge that, at the end of 15 days, only “high risk groups” be isolated and that the rest of Americans go “back to work.”
Yet the restrictions are having a major impact on the economy. The Labor Department reported a 30% increase in unemployment claims last week. James Bullard, president of the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, predicted the unemployment rate could hit 30% in the U.S.
Several states, including New York, California and Illinois, have imposed stricter social distancing requirements. Even if Trump eased the federal guidelines next week it would not affect orders signed by governors in those and other states.
– John Fritze and David Jackson
Fauci addresses Trump’s coronavirus claims
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the face of the White House’s scientific and medical response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, frequently appearing alongside President Donald Trump during task force news conferences.
But he and the president have not always agreed on the facts surrounding the outbreak.
For example, after Trump played up a drug used to treat malaria as a potential “game-changer” in the fight against coronavirus, Fauci said the only evidence that the drug could be helpful was “anecdotal.” Fauci has also contradicted Trump on the timetable for a vaccine and the severity of the outbreak.
In an interview with Science magazine, Fauci said that he and Trump don’t disagree on substantive issues.
“Even though we disagree on some things, he listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style,” Fauci said. “But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say.”
But he said during news conferences, the president says things “in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject.”
When asked about Trump’s claim that China could have told the world about the coronavirus three or four months earlier, Fauci grew defensive.
“What do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?” he asked Science staff writer Jon Cohen.
– William Cummings
Why can’t Congress agree?
As Congress negotiates over the stimulus package, here are the main sticking points:
Both sides want to give businesses a lifeline amid shutdowns that threaten to plunge the economy into a deep recession. Democrats want tough provisions to prevent corporations that receive federal bailouts from later engaging in stock buybacks that enrich their executives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his bill already includes Democrats’ demands for conditions on loans and other aide to major businesses. Democrats have called for provisions that would temporarily block evictions and foreclosures as families struggle with lost income. They also want additional funding for food stamps and an expansion of unemployment benefits. Democrats and Republicans are also wrangling over how much money should go to hospitals and health providers to help them deal with the crisis.
– Deirdre Shesgreen