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House moves toward quick vote on Democratic coronavirus package

Legislation to include unemployment insurance, paid sick leave; White House reviewing

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told House members to expect a vote on a coronavirus rescue plan on Thursday. The plan has not been negotiated with the White House. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

House Democrats plan to vote Thursday on a wide-ranging coronavirus relief package that will include expanded unemployment insurance, paid sick leave and food security assistance, as lawmakers and the Trump administration seek to move rapidly to address the unfolding crisis.

Outlines of the plan were shared Wednesday evening with Trump administration officials, although chances of reaching a bipartisan deal ahead of the vote appeared slim. The legislation includes free coronavirus testing, up to three months of emergency paid leave benefits to all workers affected by the coronavirus, and could also include an 8 percentage point increase in the federal share of Medicaid payments to states, lawmakers and aides said.

The House effort shows the urgency with which political leaders are moving to contain the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Although the Senate may not have time to act before a congressional recess scheduled for next week, a number of Republican senators indicated openness Wednesday to at least some elements of the House plan and said it was important to act quickly.

“The sick leave is certainly something we need to take a close look at, I think that’s a very practical, very significant help to folks,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “I think we shouldn’t rule anything out at this point and I think, you know, it’s a very fluid situation.”

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Events were developing rapidly on Capitol Hill after the World Health Organization announced it was declaring the coronavirus a pandemic. But a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, was circumspect about the possibilities of reaching an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“While the Pelosi draft addresses critical issues that are important to the administration and the American people, it will take serious commitment for a bipartisan, bicameral solution from all parties in order to arrive at a good result,” this official said.

Meanwhile the White House prepared to move forward with steps it could take on its own. President Trump spoke from the Oval Office late Wednesday, announcing the administration would take action on its extending paid leave to people affected by coronavirus — though details on how were sparse — and calling on Congress to extend that work. He said the Small Business Administraiton would exercise available authority to provide capital to firms affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and called on Congress to devote an additional $50 billion to the effort — something not in the House bill.

Trump also said the Internal Revenue Service would defer some tax payments, and he renewed his call for a broad payroll tax cut, something that’s widely opposed on Capitol Hill and not expected to advance.

Trump did not specifically mention the House legislation coming to a vote Thursday. Some GOP senators were waiting to take their cues from the White House as they weighed next steps. “A lot of it will depend on what the White House says,” said Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

The paid sick leave component of House Democrats’ plan would replace two-thirds of wages for most workers, up to a $4,000 a month plan. The proposal would extend eligibility for unemployment insurance. It is also expected to include about $1 billion in emergency appropriations to expand access to food security programs including food stamps, Meals on Wheels and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The overall price tag of the plan was unclear as of Wednesday evening, but was expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars at least.

“This vote tomorrow is going to be an act of confidence, that we’re establishing that we’re acting on a national health emergency,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.).

But some proposals Democrats were considering could be hard for Republicans to swallow. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that protecting illegal immigrants who seek coronavirus testing from deportation “will certainly be a major priority for us.”

The Dow Jones industrial average rose Tuesday on hopes of congressional action to address the crisis that has swept the globe, but stocks fell Wednesday as it became clear that policymakers had not reached consensus. More schools, universities and companies announced plans to close or ask employees or students to work from home, and large events were being canceled. Hundreds have been sickened in the United States with about two dozen deaths.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed President Trump's response to the coronavirus on March 9. (Video: Reuters)

Pelosi spoke twice Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, including just before meeting with the House Democratic caucus Wednesday evening to discuss the legislation, but she told reporters that White House priorities — included the broad payroll tax cut Trump supports — will not be included in the House package. The tax cuts alone that the White House has proposed could cost as much as $400 billion over one year.

“We made our proposal, and we’ll see how they are in agreement with it,” Pelosi said, adding that White House priorities might be added “for the future, but for right now, families first.”

Earlier this week, some House Democrats believed finishing a package would require staying until Friday or returning next week. House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) said that is no longer under consideration.

“I think most people want us to get out of town,” Lowey said. “Every day we hear about another member who has been touched by this virus.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on March 9 said the coronavirus threat to Americans remained low as cases continued to rise in the U.S. (Video: U.S. Senate)

Mnuchin testified before a House committee Wednesday where he said the administration is working with Congress on a way to reimburse workers who have to be home on sick leave or quarantined.

“This would be the federal government reimbursing companies so that they could pay the workers — and whether the money goes direct to the workers or the money goes to the companies, to the workers, we are figuring out the most efficient way,” Mnuchin said.

The situation on Capitol Hill remained extremely fluid.

Hoyer said there was a possibility that lawmakers could see an extended absence from Washington after they finish their business Thursday, depending on the guidance of public health experts.

“We’re making decisions on a day-to-day basis,” he said. Asked about the balance between allowing members to travel to their districts and consult with constituents and experts there, and the need to remain in Washington to respond to the growing crisis, Hoyer said, “There’s probably no right answer."

— Jeff Stein contributed to this report