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Economic rescue balloons past $1T; talks resume

By Staff | Mar 22, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – Negotiators from Congress and the White House were resuming top-level talks Saturday on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, racing to strike a deal after President Donald Trump unleashed fury on those questioning his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It was an extraordinary moment in Washington: Congress undertaking the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the U.S. economy and an angry president lashing out at all comers. All while the global pandemic and the nationwide shutdown grip an anxious, isolated population bracing for a healthcare crisis and looming recession.

Trump, during a briefing at the White House on Saturday, expressed optimism that the stimulus package could be agreed upon before long.

“They’re all negotiating and everybody’s working hard and they want to get to a solution that’s the right solution, I think we’re very close,” said Trump, who continued to strike a confident tone about the nation’s ability to defeat the pandemic soon.

“We are going to be celebrating a great victory in the not too distant future,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, key congressional and White House officials converged Saturday for more talks. The sweeping aid package of paychecks for suddenly jobless Americans, money for hospitals and aid to industry is all but certain to swell far beyond the initial $1 trillion price tag. Combined with other actions by the Federal Reserve, it could be a $2 trillion pump to the economy, officials said Saturday.

The Senate was convening the rare weekend session with the aim of drafting the package Saturday, holding an initial vote Sunday and winning Senate passage on Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday negotiators are making “important progress,” but urged talks to wrap up.

“This is not a political opportunity, this is a national emergency,” he said. “It’s time to come together, finalize the results of our bipartisan discussions and close this out.”

McConnell said he wants to pass the aid package “as quickly as humanly possible.”

It was a sentiment shared by White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland. “We need to act with urgency, we need to act with significance, we need to act with boldness,” he told reporters.

Despite the enormous pressure on Washington to swiftly act, the challenges are apparent. Lawmakers and administration officials labored late into the evening Friday over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.

“Everybody is working very hard,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, exiting one closed-door session and heading into another.

Mnuchin began negotiations with McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and senators from both parties using McConnell’s GOP offer as a starting point.. Pelosi late Friday called the GOP plan a “non-starter” but Schumer, the next morning, declared “We are making very good progress.”

The GOP plan aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and billions to small businesses to pay idled workers during the global pandemic.

But Democrats say McConnell’s plan is insufficient, arguing for greater income support for workers and a “Marshall Plan” for the U.S. healthcare industry, which is preparing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.

At the White House, Trump welcomed the stimulus plan, believing it is needed to stabilize the economy. On Saturday, he opened the briefing with a roll call of his administration’s accomplishments, a week-in-review meant to rebut criticism that the White House was moving too slowly to combat the crisis.

It came a day after he spent Friday’s daily briefing in a fury, lashing out at reporters. When one reporter asked Trump what he would tell a worried nation, the president snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”

At times, he seemed to refuse to want to hear the reality of an increasingly dire situation. It was when one reporter noted the hard facts in the U.S. – that more than 200 are dead, more than 14,000 infected and millions scared – that he snapped back.

Health officials on Saturday again warned Americans that the number of coronavirus cases would continue to increase in part as testing grew more widespread. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, promised that the administration’s measures were slowing the spread even though they were not yet easily quantified.

Trump also sowed further confusion about whether he is using the powers of the Defense Production Act to force American businesses to manufacture needed medical supplies.

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