Mar 23, 2020 11:00 AM

Senate refuses to advance coronavirus rescue package

Posted Mar 23, 2020 11:00 AM
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the U.S. Senate floor just before 10:30 p.m. Sunday night-image courtesy CSPAN
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the U.S. Senate floor just before 10:30 p.m. Sunday night-image courtesy CSPAN

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top-level negotiations between Congress and the White House churned late into the night over a now nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package, as the coronavirus crisis deepened, the nation shut down and the first U.S. senator tested positive for the disease.

As President Donald Trump took to the podium in the White House briefing room and promised to help Americans who feel afraid and isolated as the pandemic spreads, the Senate voted Sunday against advancing the rescue package. But talks continued on Capitol Hill.

“I think you’ll get there. To me it’s not very complicated: We have to help the worker. We have to save the companies,” Trump said.

Later, the Republican president suggested the remedies may be more harmful than the outbreak, vowing to reassess after the 15-day mark of the shutdown. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweeted.

Inside the otherwise emptied out Capitol, the draft aid bill was declared insufficient by Democrats, who argued it was tilted toward corporations and did too little to help workers and health care providers. Republicans returned to the negotiating table.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, exiting the Capitol just before midnight, struck an optimistic note: “We’re very close,” he said, adding negotiators would work through the night.

“Our nation cannot afford a game of chicken,” warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his voice rising on the Senate floor Sunday night. His goal is to vote Monday. The Senate will re-convene at noon.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, sounded an optimistic note.

“This bill is going to affect this country and the lives of Americans, not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years — so we have to make sure it is good, he said. ‘”There were some serious problems with the bill leader McConnell laid down. Huge amounts of corporate bailout funds without restrictions or without oversight — you wouldn’t even know who is getting the money. Not enough money for hospitals, nurses, PPE, masks, all the health care needs. No money for state and local government, many of whom would go broke. Many other things.”

But Schumer said they were making progress in dealing with those issues. “We’re getting closer and closer. And I’m very hopeful, is how I’d put it, that we can get a bill in the morning.”

With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets poised for the new work week, Washington labored under the size and scope of the rescue package that’s more ambitious than any in recent times — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats say the largely GOP-led effort did not go far enough to provide health care and worker aid and fails to put restraints on a proposed $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations. They voted to block its advance.

Democrats won a concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also extends to self-employed and so-called gig workers.

While the congressional leaders worked into the night, alarms were being sounded from coast to coast about the wave of coronavirus cases about to crash onto the nation’s health system.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had dire, urgent news from the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter: “April and May are going to be a lot worse,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

De Blasio, a Democrat, all but begged Washington to help procure ventilators and other medical supplies. He accused the Republican president of “not lifting a finger” to help.

Trump urged Congress to get a deal done and, during the Sunday briefing, responded to criticism that his administration was sluggish to act. He cited his cooperation with the three states hardest hit — New York, Washington and California — and invoked a measure to give governors flexibility in calling up the national guard under their control, while the federal government covers the bill.

But even as Trump stressed federal-local partnerships, some governors, including Republican Greg Abbott of Texas, expressed unhappiness with Washington’s response. The president himself took a swipe hours earlier at Gov. J. B. Pritzker, D-Ill., saying that he and “a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News” should not be “blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.”

This came as Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. Paul, who is a doctor and close ally of the president, said in a tweet he was not showing symptoms and was in quarantine.

Paul was seen at a GOP senators’ lunch on Friday and swimming in the Senate gym pool on Sunday morning, heightening concerns. His office said he left the Senate immediately after learning his diagnosis.

A growing list of lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation after exposure, and two members of the House have said they tested positive. Five senators were in self-quarantine Sunday evening and could not vote.

In recent days, Trump invoked the Defense Protection Act, a rarely used, decades-old authority that can be used to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators. Officials said Sunday that it would be used voluntarily and businesses would not be compelled to act.

“We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

Two days after he lashed out at a reporter who asked about his message to frightened Americans, Trump said, “For those worried and afraid, please know as long as I am your president, you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you.”

But minutes later, when he learned that rival Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was one of those in isolation, he declared, “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad.”

Trump said he was not being sarcastic.

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket 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. Stock futures declined sharply as Trump spoke Sunday evening.

Officials late Sunday put the price tag of the ballooning rescue package at nearly $2 trillion. That does not include additional measures being taken by the Federal Reserve to shore up the economy.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was leading a third day of nonstop talks on Capitol Hill, said the plan was meant to prop up the nation’s weakened economy for the next 10 to 12 weeks.

Central to the package is as much as $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. There is also a one-time rebate check of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as the extended unemployment benefits.

Hospitals, Mnuchin said, will get approximately $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients.

The treasury secretary said a significant part of the package will involve working with the Federal Reserve for up to $4 trillion of liquidity to support the economy with “broad-based lending programs.”

But Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have pushed for add-ons, including food security aid, small business loans and other measures for workers.

They warned the draft plan’s $500 billion for corporations does not put enough restraints on business, saying the ban on corporate stock buy-backs is weak and the limits on executive pay are only for two years.

“We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family, or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “We’re here to help workers, we’re here to help hospitals.”

The president, when pressed by a reporter, dodged a question as to whether his own business would seek federal funds.

With Sunday’s failed vote, McConnell angrily blamed Pelosi, who returned to Washington for a top-level meeting, saying she “poured cold water” over the draft plan. But any measure from the Senate also needs to pass the House.

The details are coming from drafts of both bills circulating among lobbyists but not yet released to the public. They were obtained by The Associated Press.

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.

WASHINGTON — The Senate has refused to advance the coronavirus rescue package in a procedural vote with Democrats rejecting a draft from Republicans and pushing for more aid for workers.

Negotiations are expected to continue into the evening Sunday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged senators to “signal to the public that we're ready to get this job done.” He wants passage by Monday.

But Democrats have resisted, arguing the nearly $1.4 trillion measure needs to bolster aid and put limits on how businesses can use the emergency dollars.

More voting is possible.

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Mar 23, 2020 11:00 AM
Virus outbreak poses massive challenges for US charities
The pandemic stopped the annual Girl Scout cookie sale. Above is Alliance, NE councilwomen Annora Bentley with Girl Scouts in Box Butte County. 

NEW YORK (AP)— With its global scope and its staying power, the coronavirus outbreak poses unprecedented challenges for charities and nonprofit groups that rely on donations.

The American Red Cross faces a severe blood shortage due to the cancellation of nearly 2,700 blood drives. The Girl Scouts' annual cookie sale — vital to the group's finances — has been disrupted by a top-level plea to halt in-person sales.

And a 21-member coalition of major nonprofits is pleading with Congress to allocate $60 billion so charities can keep their staff on the job and ramp up assistance programs.

The CEO of one of those groups, Brian Gallagher of United Way Worldwide, has worked with the charity since 1981, engaging in its response to the 9/11 attacks, the Ebola threat, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

He said the COVID-19 outbreak has no parallel: "It's as if a natural disaster is hitting in slow motion just about every country on Earth."

Already, foundations and other major donors have contributed more than $1.9 billion to combat the outbreak, according to Candid, a New York-based nonprofit that tracks philanthropic giving.

The overall total, including donations from individuals, is surely far higher. Yet nonprofit leaders fear that the needs arising from the outbreak will outstrip even the possibility of massive future giving, let alone a possible drop in giving if a recession takes hold.

“Even if we get this virus under control, there will be several months of recovery for many people,” said Patricia McIlreavy, president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Business will have closed, many families will have exhausted every reserve.”

Among the major charities bracing for future challenges is the Salvation Army, which says it annually receives about $2 billion in public support to serve about 23 million people living in poverty.

“We expect that service number to rise exponentially in the coming months," requiring "tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to support our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Dale Bannon, the faith-based organization’s community relations and development secretary.”

He said the Salvation Army, like many other charities, has been forced to cancel numerous fundraising events because of the outbreak. It is now focusing on online fundraising operations.

Canceled blood drives have been devastating to the American Red Cross, which provides about 40% of the nation’s blood supply.

In a statement Wednesday, the organization estimated that there have been 86,000 fewer blood donations in recent weeks because of the wave of blood drive cancellations at workplaces, colleges and other venues as people were told to work or study from home and practice social distancing.

Patients being treated in hospitals for the coronavirus do not generally need blood transfusions, but the worsening blood shortage could affect surgery and cancer patients and victims of car accidents.

Anticipating that blood drive cancellations will continue, the Red Cross pleaded for potential donors to support drives that do take place or for donors to visit its blood-donation facilities.

The group outlined additional safety precautions being taken, including checking the temperature of staff and donors before they enter locations and requiring staff to change gloves each time they interact with a different donor.

For the Girl Scouts of the USA, calling for a halt to in-person cookie sales was momentous, given that the sales net roughly $800 million annually and are the core of the organization’s fundraising.

Girls who had been selling cookies at booths outside stores and other locations were asked to focus on online sales instead.

“The risk of interaction with large crowds is just too great,” said the Girl Scouts’ CEO, Sylvia Acevedo.

The Girl Scouts are asking their corporate supporters to consider making bulk cookie purchases. A spokeswoman, Valerie Geiss, said it would be several months before the financial outcome of the sales campaign is known.

Many local Girl Scout gatherings across the country have been suspended, though some units are meeting online. The Washington-based Girl Scouts of Nation’s Capital said it will be hosting more than 40 “virtual troop meetings” next week, potentially serving about 5,000 girls.

The Girl Scouts were among the 21 nonprofits appealing to congress on Thursday for the $60 billion infusion of support for charitable organizations.

Their appeal said America’s charities employ 12 million workers, many of them working on the front lines of the coronavirus response.

“The financial impact of the crisis has put the very survival of many essential service providers at risk,” said Steven C. Preston, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. “Charities are our society’s shock absorber when crisis hits.”

At the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, McIlreavy says there has been a surge of requests from would-be donors seeking guidance on how to give effectively in response to the pandemic.

‘‘Folks just want to know the money is going somewhere where it's actually going to help someone,” she said.

Her center urges donors to be wary of misinformation and do thorough research of charities before making gifts. It identifies key areas that could interest donors: urgent medical response needs, long-term medical research and assistance to vulnerable people in the U.S. or abroad.

For most people, the 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.

For the United Way, a current priority is to strengthen and expand the 211 network that helps people who call the number to connect with providers of urgently needed social services.

Gallagher said 211 specialists have answered about 12 million requests annually, and he predicts there will be an additional 200,000 calls per day in coming weeks because of the outbreak.

Looking broadly, Gallagher believes there will be a surge in charitable giving for the next few months, and then a downturn as a weak economy takes a toll.

Big charities like United Way will get through it, Gallagher said. “The smaller nonprofits — houses of worship, soup kitchens — they will struggle."