US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell embodies the poisoning of America’s political well. Photo: AFP

Congress and the US government worked furiously Sunday to provide trillions of dollars in rescue money aimed at cushioning both businesses and ordinary Americans from the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were scrambling to finalize a deal to inject upwards of $1.6 trillion into businesses and the pockets of millions of workers laid off as the deadly outbreak continues to spread. 

The package – likely the largest federal intervention in US history – would cushion the blow for Americans and backstop ailing businesses, and would likely send the federal deficit soaring.

A separate package being considered by US financial authorities would provide $4 trillion in liquidity – a staggering 20% of US GDP – to juice up the economy.

But amid signals that the congressional talks on the $1.6 trillion bill were stalling, and even faltering, the Senate’s top Republican said he would plough ahead with a procedural vote Sunday that tees up a vote on final passage on Monday.

“It’s time to move forward. Americans don’t need to see us haggling endlessly,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the chamber ahead of a scheduled 3:00 pm (1900 GMT) vote to advance the measure.

“The American people need an outcome,” he said, adding that Democrats and Republicans alike have moved towards the center in a desperate effort to reach a deal.

“Each side has to decide whether to continue elbowing and arguing… and risk the whole thing, or whether to shake hands and get it done,” McConnell said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, perhaps the key representative of President Donald Trump’s administration in the process, also expressed hope an agreement could be reached Sunday.

As the 100-member Senate neared a possible deal, it was hit with the news Sunday that one of its own, Republican Senator Rand Paul, has tested positive for coronavirus.

A statement on his Twitter feed said he is “feeling fine,” but he is in quarantine and will be unable to take the critical upcoming votes.

While top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer expressed optimism about a deal late Saturday, members of his party warned Sunday that Republicans have failed to address key elements, including a massive funding infusion to hospitals.

Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential candidate, said the “outrageous” GOP plan “denies millions of workers paid sick leave” and keeps state and local governments underfunded.

“We must do much better.”

Mnuchin meanwhile detailed a separate massive relief plan to support hard-hit businesses. 

Under one part of that plan a “significant package working with the Federal Reserve will have up to $4 trillion of liquidity that we can use to support the economy,” Mnuchin told Fox News Sunday.

Together, the urgent measures represented one of the most dramatic governmental rescue efforts outside time of war, with millions of people thrown out of work, thousands of businesses shuttered or badly suffering, travel severely curtailed and no certainty as to when things might improve.

They also came as the death toll from the pandemic continued to rise – especially in hotspots like New York City – and as local and state officials across the country warned of dire consequences absent more aggressive federal action.

– ‘Worse is yet to come’ –

“The worse is yet to come,” New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said on CNN, predicting hospitals in the city would face serious shortages of protective equipment within days unless drastic action is taken.  

“We expect April will be a lot worse than March and I fear May could be worse than April,” he said.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said he had seen some improvement in the flow of medical supplies, but he still had sharply critical words for the federal government’s approach.

“It is better,” he said, but hospitals were still receiving “just a fraction” of what they had requested. 

Pritzker blamed in part the administration’s decision to leave the supply chain up to private companies and not intervene to take control – as Trump has the authority to do under the Defense Production Act.

“Yes, we’re competing against each other” for supplies, the governor said, referring to the different states. 

Mnuchin said the relief package being voted on Sunday had three parts.

It would give small businesses enough cash to pay laid-off workers for two weeks; provide direct cash payments to Americans (about $3,000 for a family of four, he said); and enhance unemployment insurance for those laid off. 

It would also provide funds to support hard-pressed hospitals and medical professionals. 

– AFP

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