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Congress Awaits GOP Relief Plan as First Lawmakers Test Positive For Coronavirus

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to release a GOP-led coronavirus response bill Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to release a GOP-led coronavirus response bill Thursday.

Updated at 12:34 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to release details of a roughly $1 trillion GOP-led coronavirus response bill Thursday with hopes of quickly reaching a final agreement with Democrats as the number of lawmakers in self-quarantine rises.

McConnell has been in close contact with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in recent days as they rush to draft a bill that reflects a GOP-wide consensus. At that point, McConnell plans to launch talks with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Mnuchin says the legislation includes plans to send most Americans a check or direct deposit of $1,000 within three weeks. In an interview with Fox Business, Mnuchin said each person in a household would be eligible for that money. In addition, $500 would be made available for each child. So a family of four would receive $3,000 under the proposal, Mnuchin said.

"As soon as Congress passes this, we'd get this out within three weeks," Mnuchin said. "Six weeks later, if the president still has a national emergency we will deliver another $3,000 [for a family of four]."

Mnuchin said the plan also includes $300 billion for small businesses loans. The loans are intended to be used for hiring and maintaining payroll and could be forgiven down the line.

McConnell provided further detail in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. He said the legislation under discussion includes billions of dollars in forgivable federal loans for small businesses.

"Owners will not be able to use the funds to give themselves raises or increase their own profits," McConnell said. "The point is to help small businesses endure, help workers keep their jobs and help workers and businesses emerge from this ready to thrive."

Industry-specific aid, including money for airlines, would be in the form of "targeted lending" that McConnell described as government loans.

"Just like small businesses, entire sectors are being crushed by public health guidance which is obviously no fault of their own," McConnell said. "We are talking about loans that must be repaid."

He added that Congress will have future opportunities to address the long-term impact of the coronavirus crisis when they write regular annual spending bills later in the year.

"The legislation I have just laid out will not be the last word," McConnell said. "This is not Congress' last chance to legislate but it is critical that we move swiftly and boldly to begin to stabilize our economy."

Democrats have not said whether they will accept the GOP proposals. But Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have been in touch with Mnuchin and are sharing their ideas even though they have not been actively included in writing the bill.

Schumer acknowledged in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition that there is public pressure for lawmakers to set aside differences and pass a bill quickly.

"We don't want to be partisan, we just want to solve the problem," Schumer said. "We want to get something done quickly and boldly. That's a big job, but we have to do it because the crisis is even bigger."

But Schumer says Democrats have a number of additional requests, including a vast expansion of unemployment insurance benefits.

Democrats want to provide a major increase in the amount of money provided through the federal unemployment assistance program — perhaps as high as an equal match to the salary lost. Schumer is also calling for that program to be extended for many months, along with expansions to paid sick and family leave. The president signed a package Wednesday night that included a first round of paid sick and family leave as well as help for jobless Americans, but lawmakers in both parties acknowledged that a broader effort was needed as the economic impact continues to worsen.

Hill Democrats also want limitations on any corporate bailouts or aid.

"If they're going to do these corporate bailouts, we want to make sure they're for the average worker," Schumer said. "We want to make sure they keep all of their workers without salary cuts, we want to make sure they don't use this money for stock buybacks."

The rapid developments come as lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of the virus within the Capitol.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., informed members today that the House will not return to session until it is time to vote on a third coronavirus response bill.

"In light of the guidance issued by the CDC, we will be adjusting the House schedule. It is my intention that the House will not return to session until we are in a position to vote on the third piece of emergency legislation to respond to the economic impact of this crisis," Hoyer said in a letter to House Democrats.

Roughly nine lawmakers are under self-quarantine, and at least two have tested positive for COVID-19. While there is rising pressure among some rank-and-file members to allow remote voting, leaders have rejected those proposals.

Dozens of House lawmakers were already asking chamber's leaders to allow remote voting before the any members had tested positive. The effort was spearheaded by California Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell and Katie Porter.

"Congress also should be no exception to the public health safeguards," they wrote in the March 18 letter to Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. "We are undermining our unified, bipartisan message to the American people when we come together on a crowded House floor to vote."

During a House chamber vote, there can be more than 430 members and 100 staffers clustered on the floor, they said.

In all, 52 members signed the letter. Both Swalwell and Porter previously urged remote voting ahead of the health crisis, saying it should be an option to members regardless. However, the issue has taken on a new sense of urgency with the coronavirus outbreak.

Hoyer acknowledged concerns about exposure in his letter to lawmakers and said he expected to adjust voting procedures. "No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options," he wrote.

Asked about members of Congress who had tested positive for the virus, President Trump said "I know all of them" and said he hoped they all would recover. "It's one of those things," he said, noting most people recover.

Congress would have to pass resolutions allowing remote voting, which would require either unanimous consent or an in-person vote. Either is a high bar, making the policy change unlikely at this moment.
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