US Senate leader introduces emergency virus bill, sets bipartisan talks

McConnell says the Senate is not going anywhere until action is taken. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced emergency legislation to stem the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, and Republicans and Democrats agreed to meet Friday to seek an agreement.

The US$1 trillion-plus package will include direct financial help for Americans, relief for small businesses and their employees, steps to stabilise the economy, and new support for healthcare professionals and coronavirus patients, McConnell said.

“We are ready to act as soon as agreement with our colleagues across the aisle can be reached,” he said on the Senate floor.

“The Senate is not going anywhere until we take action.”

A vote could still be days away, said senior Republican lawmaker Lamar Alexander.

McConnell also said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow would be on Capitol Hill on Friday to work with lawmakers from both parties toward an agreement.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats were ready.

“We look forward to working with them to come up with a bipartisan product,” he said.

But he stressed any “bailout” of industries must be aimed at helping workers, not executives or shareholders.

The package is the third taken up by Congress since the coronavirus erupted in the United States, killing more than 150 people, shutting schools, businesses and wide swaths of American life, and sending the stock market into a tailspin.

A key plank is direct payments of up to US$1,200 for individuals and US$2,400 for couples below a certain income threshold, along with US$500 for each child in the family, a Senate Finance Committee statement said.

The maximum payments would be for those individuals earning no more than US$75,000, and US$150,000 for a couple, it said.

Above those levels, payments would be reduced, and totally phased out at US$99,000 for an individual and US$198,000 for couples.

The bill also includes US$208 billion for industries.

This breaks down to US$58 billion for airlines, and US$150 billion for “other eligible entities,” a Republican statement said.

All of this money would be in the form of loans and loan guarantees.

For small businesses, a key Republican constituency, the bill includes US$299.4 billion for loan guarantees and loan subsidies.

Under the legislation taxpayers would be given more time to file their 2019 tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service.

The traditional April 15 filing deadline would be moved to July 15, the Finance Committee said.

Healthcare provisions of the bill include expanding testing for the virus, hiring more healthcare workers and speeding the development of new vaccines and treatments.

The measure would also allow students to defer payments on student loans, Alexander said in a statement.

Trump sharply changed his tone on the risks posed by the virus this week, after long downplaying them, and started talking about sending Americans US$1,000 checks.

Not all Republicans were keen on the idea.

“Just a blanket cash check to everybody in America that’s making up to US$75,000? I don’t know the logic of that,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said before the bill was announced.

Leaders in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, are trying to work out new voting procedures that would allow them to reconvene without endangering members after Utah Democrat Ben McAdams and Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart tested positive for the virus.

Several other House lawmakers, including Republican whip Steve Scalise, were in self-quarantine after having been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had asked the Rules committee chairman, Representative Jim McGovern, to review how members vote in the chamber.

Congress passed an US$8.3 billion measure earlier this month to combat the coronavirus outbreak and develop vaccines for the highly contagious disease.

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved and Trump signed another US$105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending.

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