WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress worked urgently Thursday to fashion a $1 trillion measure to prop up households and the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, starting with a White House proposal to send Americans first-round aid checks — potentially $3,000 for a family of four.
The fast-track effort in an all but shuttered Capitol came as the first two lawmakers tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, others are self-isolating and the usually tradition-bound Congress faced calls to ease rules and allow remote voting.
“The American people need help and they need it fast,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as he opened the Senate.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the checks would be direct deposited into people’s accounts under the plan the Trump administration has proposed to Congress.
The payments would be $1,000 per adult and $500 per child so that a family of two parents and two children would receive $3,000, Mnuchin told Fox Business Network. The goal is to get that money out in three weeks, he said.
“That’s a lot of money for hard-working Americans,” Mnuchin said.
Keeping paychecks flowing for idled workers as jobless claims skyrocket is a key element of both the Republican and Democratic plans emerging from Congress.
At the same time, caring for the expected surge of sick Americans is a priority. Congress wants to ramp up production of medical supplies and rapidly erecting temporary field hospitals under new authorities President Donald Trump invoked in the Defense Production Act.
“America needs a Marshall Plan for our health care system, ” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, citing the post-World War II program in which the U.S. financed rebuilding in Europe.
McConnell tapped the Senate’s Republican chairmen to roll out their proposals, expected as soon as Thursday.
Republicans want to have small businesses send paychecks to workers being forced to stay home —though government loans that would not have to be repaid — to prevent employees being cast aside. They also want to shore up airlines and other industries, but those loans would have to be paid back.
Democrats compiling their own priorities in the House and Senate suggest other ways to keep paychecks flowing in what Schumer called “employment insurance” — which he characterized as “unemployment insurance on steroids.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Trump to quickly use his new wartime authority to push manufacturers to start producing the medical supplies.
“There is not a day to lose,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We must put more testing, more protective equipment and more ventilators into the hands of our frontline workers immediately.”
The centerpiece of the White House effort is $500 billion to start issuing direct payments to Americans, starting early next month.
The Treasury Department proposed two $250 billion cash infusions to individuals: a first set of checks issued starting April 6, with a second wave by mid-May. Officials have previously said the money is expected to be allocated by income level, to exclude the super-wealthy.
The emerging package would also funnel cash to businesses to help keep workers on payroll as widespread sectors of the $21 trillion U.S. economy all but shut down.
Industries of all kinds are lining up for help to avoid cratering the economy and devastating home lives of their employees.
Groups representing hospitals, doctors and nurses are asking Congress for $100 billion to help the health care system respond to the challenge of COVID-19, which could involve providing treatment for tens of thousands of seriously ill people.
The total price tag is sure to grow beyond $1 trillion, lawmakers said.
Taken together, the administration plan promises half of the $1 trillion to families and individuals, with the other half used to prop up businesses and keep employees on payroll.
Direct payments would go to U.S. citizens only, and would be “tiered based on income level and family size.” The two payments would be identical, with the second wave starting by May 18.
Trump has already signed into law a $100 billion-plus bill to boost testing for the coronavirus and guarantee paid sick leave for millions of workers hit by it. Earlier, Congress passed and Trump signed an initial $8.3 billion effort.
As Congress rushes to compile the sweeping economic rescue package, the biggest undertaking since the 2008 recession and financial crisis, in a matter of days, it also is considering its own way of doing business.
The Senate plans to remain in session until the emerging coronavirus bill passes, with weekend sessions possible. The House, which is on recess, won’t be recalled until it’s time to vote.
In the House, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, released statements saying they had tested positive for COVID-19 — the first two known cases in Congress. Several other lawmakers have cycled in and out of self-isolation after exposure to individuals who had later tested positive for the virus.
On Thursday, McAdams told NBC’s “Today” show the House should consider changing its rules to allow remote voting.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he shares lawmakers’ concerns about the potential risks of congregating in groups and is considering ways to “adjust our voting procedures” to follow the Center for Disease Controls’s recommendations on social distancing.
Economists say the country is probably already in recession and that the massive rescue package now being drafted would probably not be enough to stop millions of job losses.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.