March 12, 2020 / 4:50 PM / 20 days ago

U.S. lawmakers near deal with White House on coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers and the White House neared agreement on a coronavirus economic aid package, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday, adding she hoped to announce a deal on Friday.

FILE PHOTO:Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives for a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate have been at odds over the legislation. Pelosi, a Democrat, spent much of Thursday haggling with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was handling the negotiations for the President Donald Trump’s Republican administration.

Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke by telephone eight times, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. They were “close to an agreement subject to an exchange of paper and we hope to have an agreement tomorrow,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday evening, vowing to bring the matter to a vote in the House on Friday.

“We’ve resolved most of our differences,” Pelosi said. It was not clear whether some important disagreements still had to be worked out.

Pelosi repeatedly stressed that the bill must encourage Americans to be tested for the coronavirus and not have to be worried about the cost.

“It’s about testing, testing, testing,” she said.

A House Republican aide said Republicans were not opposed to free testing, but that some technical aspects of the legislation needed to be fixed.

Pelosi and her fellow Democrats on Wednesday evening made a 124-page proposal to expand paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, funding for child nutrition and other food programs, and introduce other sweeping steps to address economic hardships that the growing coronavirus outbreak could wreak on Americans.

On Thursday morning Republicans rejected the Democratic bill, called the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act.” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy called the initiative “unworkable.”

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the Democrats’ proposal “an ideological wish list” that would create burdensome programs and regulations. Republicans particularly voiced concerns over the extent of a paid leave programme.

McConnell urged bipartisan efforts at passing “smaller, non-controversial pieces of legislation.” But when the day dragged on and no deal emerged from the Pelosi-Mnuchin telephone negotiations, McConnell closed up the Senate for the week, announcing it would return on Monday.

As a result, even if the House passes a deal on Friday it is not expected to be considered by the Senate until next week.

Last week, Congress displayed unusual bipartisanship when it passed an $8.3 billion coronavirus response bill that attracted only a few “no” votes. But this week, the partisan atmosphere returned, as the U.S. government wrestled with responding to the biggest health crisis it has faced in years.

Members of both parties in Congress have been frustrated that the United States was ill-prepared to conduct widespread testing for the coronavirus. That was underscored early on Thursday when senators emerged from a closed briefing with top U.S. health officials.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters the attending physician of Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan, estimated that 70 million to 150 million people would contract the coronavirus in the United States. Blumenthal said he thought the estimates were guesswork because of “insufficient testing” for the disease so far.

Republican Senator Mike Rounds said the health officials were having trouble giving them details on how many test kits were needed, and “there was lots of frustration that we were not getting the numbers we were hoping to get.”

Several senators also said there was an issue with the supply chain for items needed to administer the tests, such as cotton swabs and protective gloves.

Meanwhile, a crisis atmosphere enveloped the Capitol. Tourist visits were suspended at least until April 1, and several Senate offices were shuttered over worries about possible infections.

Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor, told reporters he favours allowing senators to cast votes on legislation remotely in emergency situations, an idea congressional leaders have been resisting.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Richard Cowan and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Rosalba O'Brien and Leslie Adler

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