U.S. Senate leader introduces emergency coronavirus bill, seeks bipartisan talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced emergency legislation to stem the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday and said Republicans were ready to meet their Democratic counterparts on Friday to seek an agreement.

FILE PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to members of the news media while walking into his office, as Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a State of Emergency due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

The $1 trillion-plus package will include direct financial help for Americans, relief for small businesses and their employees, steps to stabilize 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 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.

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.

Schumer said whatever package is developed must include a “massive infusion of resources” for hospitals, and there must be worker protections in any industry bailouts.

As for the prospect of direct cash payments to individual Americans, Schumer said they needed to be “bigger, more generous, and more frequent” than he had heard Republicans describe.

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

Senator Kevin Cramer, a Trump ally, said Republicans were weighing maximum payments of $1,200 to people making $75,000 a year or less.

Some other Republicans were not so keen on the idea.

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

Cramer also said the economic stimulus package was likely to rely on loans, not grants, to the airline industry.

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.

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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 $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 $105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage through free testing, paid sick leave, and expanded safety-net spending.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone, Paul Simao and Rosalba O’Brien

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