March 11, 2020 / 2:20 PM / 22 days ago

U.S. Capitol tours suspended as House leaders speed coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday rushed to advance a broad package of proposals to help Americans battle the coronavirus outbreak, as officials moved to suspend public tours through the Capitol building.

FILE PHOTO: Visitors look up at the domed ceiling while on a tour of the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

A Capitol official confirmed that the spreading coronavirus prompted a decision to temporarily stop tourist visits, although the landmark building will remain open for legislative business.

The tours would be suspended through the end of March, a congressional official said, adding it was not yet clear when the suspensions would start.

An estimated 3 million visitors stream through the Capitol annually.

After a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she hoped legislation to help Americans navigate through the coronavirus crisis would win the backing of the Trump administration. The bill could be unveiled later on Wednesday and voted upon on Thursday.

The legislation would include expanding unemployment benefits for those who have lost work because of the impact of the fast-spreading virus.

“This vote tomorrow is going to be an act of confidence that ... we’re acting on a national health emergency,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal said.

Neal said that on Tuesday he spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and “he surely seemed supportive of the positions I had taken.”

Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, has also been talking to Mnuchin.

Democrats have refused to back President Donald Trump’s call for at least temporarily suspending the payroll tax as a way of helping families get through the coronavirus crisis. They have argued that the proposal is too broad and would not be the most effective way of helping Americans.

If passed by the House and Senate and approved by Trump, the House’s bill would result in “billions” of dollars of federal funds being dispensed, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said.

Democratic lawmakers said they were still examining ways to cover the costs of some provisions.

The additional emergency funds would come on top of the $8.3 billion pledged in a bill enacted last week to help develop a coronavirus vaccine, speed medical supplies and test kits across the United States that are in short supply and help foreign countries control the spread of the highly contagious virus, which causes the sometimes fatal respiratory illness COVID-19.

House Democrats hope to rush this second coronavirus bill through Congress before it begins a scheduled recess at the end of this week. Additional bills could follow, lawmakers said.

The House bill is expected to include paid sick leave for workers quarantined or having to stay home to care for family members.

It also would expand federal food aid programs, especially to low-income families whose children might not be able to attend schools where they receive meals, and expand unemployment insurance.

Its fate in the Republican-led Senate was unclear.

The number of U.S. coronavirus cases has risen steadily and has affected almost three-quarters of U.S. states. More than 1,000 cases and 32 deaths have been reported.

Even before the decision limiting access to the Capitol, the number of visits was falling, said Democratic Representative Donna Shalala, ex-President Bill Clinton’s secretary of health.

“Most of my tours have been canceled because people are not coming,” Shalala said of her south Florida constituents. She added that many official meetings are being conducted by telephone “just because people are not coming to Washington or they’ve decided to not leave their offices.”

Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and Sonya Hepinstall

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