Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, accused Democrats in Congress of proposing an “ideological wishlist” in response to coronavirus, as political sparring escalated over stimulus measures to protect the US economy from a severe downturn.
With US equity markets sinking on Thursday after US President Donald Trump failed to reassure investors that he could contain the crisis, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill rejected legislation presented this week by Democrats to limit the economic fallout. Their proposal included boosts to jobless benefits and food aid, free testing for coronavirus, and paid leave for ill workers.
Instead, Mr McConnell said that Congress should be working on “smaller, non-controversial pieces of legislation right away that would bolster particular aspects of the fight against coronavirus” — suggesting that only a limited package would garner sufficient support from lawmakers.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, defended the Democrats’ proposed legislation on Thursday morning, telling reporters that the bill “put families first”.
Amid the stand-off, Ms Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, have been holding talks to reach a compromise, raising the possibility that some kind of deal could still be reached before the end of the week. Her office said she had spoken to Mr Mnuchin twice on Thursday morning.
“We’re negotiating with Secretary Mnuchin,” Ms Pelosi told reporters. “He had some suggestions, all very reasonable. I think none of them would prevent us from moving forward with the bill.”
But the speaker also rejected a suggestion from Kevin McCarthy, leader of the House Republicans, that Republicans would need two more days to come to an agreement.
“We don’t need 48 hours, we need to make a decision to help families right now,” she said. “I’m not sticking around because they won’t agree to language.”
Last week, the US Congress approved $8.3bn in emergency funding to ratchet up America’s response to the crisis. However, that has appeared insufficient in light of the rising number of cases in the world’s largest economy. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 1,300 people have contracted coronavirus in the US, and 38 have died from it.
Mr Trump has proposed a sweeping cut to payroll taxes to mitigate the economic damage, but that proposal has fallen flat amid opposition from many Democrats as well as wariness from some Republicans.
“People are narrowing down the scope [of the talks] to what are the things that we can draft quickly and implement quickly and have broad consensus,” said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest US business lobby group.
“There’s some movement in that regard but they are not there yet,” Mr Bradley said. He added that the economic fundamentals were strong enough that the US did not require a “broader economic stimulus”, but rather targeted assistance for companies and individuals who were losing revenue and income due to coronavirus.
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Mr McCarthy said Republican congressmen had a conference call on Thursday morning with National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow. He said the call was set up in lieu of an in-person meeting to increase participation levels. But he said “health” was also a consideration.
Mr McCarthy said he was confident a bipartisan agreement would be reached in the next 24 to 48 hours. Congress is scheduled to go on a weeklong recess from Friday.
“It is more important that we get it right. I am not concerned that we go on recess,” Mr McCarthy said. “I think we stay here, we get it right.”
The tussling over a response to the coronavirus threat came as several lawmakers, including Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, closed their offices, including for staff, following reports that a congressional aide had tested positive for the disease. The US Congress and its office buildings will be closed to the public until April 1.