April 07, 2020
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Susan Collins hits Democrats as coronavirus stimulus talks boil over in Congress

Andrew Harnik | AP
Andrew Harnik | AP
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives Friday for a meeting to discuss the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

WASHINGTON — Negotiations on a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package bogged down in Congress on Monday, leading to an angry floor speech from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as President Donald Trump expressed qualms about extending a current 15-day shutdown recommended by the federal government.

With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets entering a new work week, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package that’s more ambitious than any in recent times — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats say the largely Republican-led effort does not go far enough to provide health care and worker aid and fails to put restraints on a proposed $500 billion “slush fund” for corporations. They voted to block its advance on Sunday as negotiations continue.

Central to the package is an item championed by Collins, a Republican, for at least $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are at home. There is a one-time rebate check of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as extended unemployment benefits. Hospitals would get $110 billion for an expected influx of sick patients.

Minority Democrats in the Senate have warned the draft plan’s $500 billion for corporations does not put enough restraints on business, saying the ban on corporate stock buy-backs is weak and the limits on executive pay are only for two years.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, called it “a slush fund” that could end up in the hands of corporations or executives, not workers. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Senate Democrat, said the package was “totally worried about Wall Street.”

But on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, warned that the nation “cannot afford a game of chicken” on the aid package and the situation had not improved by Monday, when Collins blasted Democrats in a floor speech delayed briefly after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, objected to allowing the Maine senator to speak. She called that move “unbelievable” on the floor.

Once she was allowed to speak, Collins said negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on her small-business portion of the package had happened in “good faith” and that negotiations could have also continued if Democrats allowed the package to advance on Sunday.

“We don’t have another day. We don’t have another hour,” she said. “We don’t have another minute to delay acting.”

The White House team led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin returned to Capitol Hill for a fourth straight day of talks as negotiators narrowed on a bipartisan accord.

“We’re making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said midday as he shuttled through the halls.

But McConnell fumed, warning Democrats — pointedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to quit stalling on “political games,” as he described Democratic efforts to steer more of the aid toward public health and workers.

From the White House, Trump sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus’s march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy.

Even though Trump’s administration recommended Americans curtail activities starting a week ago, the president in all capital letters tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

His musing contradicts the advice of medical and public health experts across the country, if not the globe, to hunker down even more firmly.

Pelosi assailed Trump’s idea and fluctuating response to the crisis.

“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well coordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” Pelosi said on a health-care conference call. “Thank God for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank God for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”

At the Capitol, the virus continued to strike close. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who announced he tested positive for coronavirus, is now among five senators under self-quarantine. Several other lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation. And the husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in a hospital with pneumonia after testing positive, she said Monday.

With a wary population watching and waiting, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats are holding out as they argue the package is tilted toward corporations and should do more to help suddenly jobless workers and health care providers with dire needs.

In particular, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants constraints on the largely Republican-led effort to provide $500 billion for corporations.

Yet, he said, “We’re very close to reaching a deal.” Even so, another attempt to move the package forward snagged, blocked as Democrats refused to quit negotiating.

Democrats won one concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also would extend to self-employed and so-called gig workers.

But Republicans complained Democrats were holding out for more labor protections for workers, wanting assurances that corporations taking federal aid will commit to retaining their employees.

Pelosi came out with the House Democrats’ own sweeping $2.5 trillion bill, which would provide $1,500 directly to the public and $200 billion to the states, as governors are pleading for aid. She urged Senate negotiators “to move closer to the values” in it.

Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

From his home, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden criticized Trump for stopping short of using the full force of emergency federal authority .

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president,” Biden said in an online address. “Well, start acting like one.”

On the economic front, the Federal Reserve announced Monday it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments as well as extend its bond-buying programs as part of a series of sweeping steps to support the flow of credit through an economy ravaged by the viral outbreak.

Central to the emerging rescue package is as much as $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. The package also proposes a one-time rebate of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as extended unemployment benefits.

Hospitals would get about $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients, said Mnuchin. But Democrats are pushing for more health-care dollars for the front-line hospitals and workers.

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket and financial markets are eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the health-care crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd, Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Hope Yen, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama and E&E News writer Bev Banks contributed to this report.


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