U.S. Senate prepares to vote on one coronavirus aid package while working on another

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress scrambled to limit the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Senate preparing to vote Wednesday on a $105 billion aid package and President Donald Trump pushing for a third, $1 trillion plan.

The Republican-controlled Senate was expected to vote on a roughly $105 billion aid proposal passed by the House of Representatives that bolsters safety-net programs and provides free testing for the highly contagious coronavirus, which has killed more than 100 people across the United States.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the package by an overwhelming bipartisan margin on Saturday.

Lawmakers were also strategizing how to limit their risk of becoming ill, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he planned to double the amount of time to vote to limit the number of members in the chamber at any one time.

Lawmakers were trying to craft another emergency stimulus package that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said on Tuesday could cost $1.3 trillion. The Treasury Department circulated a memo on Wednesday with some of the proposed details.

The document called for $300 billion for small businesses, $50 billion for loans for cash-strapped airlines and $150 billion for loan guarantees to other distressed economic sectors.

It also called for two rounds of payments to individual taxpayers totaling $250 billion each. Payments would be tiered based on income level and family size, the document said. Trump suggested on Tuesday these checks could amount to $1,000 each.

It was unclear when the massive new proposal would be taken up, although one House Democratic aide said Wednesday it might be as soon as next week. It was also unclear how soon Americans would get the money, but Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday morning to push the effort.

“For the people that are now out of work because of the important and necessary containment policies, for instance the shutting down of hotels, bars and restaurants, money will soon be coming to you,” Trump said in his tweet.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Trump administration’s call for $1,000 checks to Americans, saying expanded unemployment benefits would be a more effective way of helping workers by covering them for a longer time with a bigger safety net.

“This is not a time for small thinking. This is not a time for small measures,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “This is a time to be bold, to be aggressive.”

Not all senators were expected to support the $105 billion House-passed bill Wednesday. Some Republicans worry that the sick-leave provisions could heap costs on small businesses.

Senator Rand Paul, a conservative Republican, proposed paying for some of the new spending by ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The Senate rejected that idea.

But McConnell was urging his colleagues to approve the House-passed bill quickly.

Mnuchin privately warned this week that unemployment could hit 20% if Congress does not act.

Separately, the Trump administration late on Tuesday also asked Congress for another $45.8 billion to shore up U.S. agencies responding to the outbreak.

It would also give extra funds to help beef up sanitation efforts at airports, provide extra protective gear to federal agents, bolster cybersecurity protections, improve teleworking capabilities and shore up the Amtrak passenger rail service, which has seen a steep drop in ridership.

House Democrats had concerns with some aspects that might not belong in a coronavirus bill, the House Democratic aide said, such as $291 million for the agency in charge of deporting illegal immigrants.

Congress quickly approved an first $8.3 billion package in early March to boost the medical response to the pandemic.

Health officials have advised Americans to avoid non-essential travel and large gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 6,500 people across the country and killed at least 115.

McConnell on Wednesday warned his fellow senators against congregating as they normally do during votes.

“Come in and vote and leave,” said McConnell, who also said that the Senate’s typical 15-minute roll-call votes would be extended to 30 minutes so that members do not all rush into the chamber at once.

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