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Senate negotiators cite progress on coronavirus bill after day of drama and rancor

After finger-pointing and fury, a bipartisan agreement appears closer on massive rescue package.

Senators are racing to thrash out a massive coronavirus spending bill before Congress is forced to shut down. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate leaders and the Trump administration neared bipartisan agreement Monday night on a massive stimulus bill that could inject $2 trillion into the economy to blunt the impacts of the coronavirus.

After a day of partisan rancor and posturing on Capitol Hill, the outlook grew markedly more positive later in the afternoon, when offers and counteroffers were exchanged. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) convened Democrats on a conference call and told them he was hopeful about striking a deal by the end of the day, according to a person familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details.

Schumer was very upbeat, according to another Democrat, who listened into the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it. Some senators encouraged Schumer to announce a deal in principle Monday evening, but several issues remained unresolved.

So after hours of negotiations that wrapped up shortly before midnight, Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin prepared to leave the Capitol without a deal in hand, but optimistic they could announce one Tuesday morning.

“Secretary Mnuchin called the president, we told him we were very, very close to an agreement; he seemed very happy with that and wanted us to try to — get us to get it done tomorrow,” Schumer told reporters.

Mnuchin said there are “still documents that are going to be reviewed tonight and are going to be turned around,” but added that he was “very hopeful” of a deal Tuesday morning.

At the White House earlier, President Trump also told reporters that a deal was near.

“They have to get together and just stop with the partisan politics, and I think that’s happening,” Trump said. “I got a call a little while ago, I guess they are getting closer. It should go quickly and it must go quickly. It’s not really a choice. They don’t have a choice. They have to make a deal.”

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Overall, the legislation is aimed at flooding the economy with capital to revive businesses and households that have been knocked off course by fears about the virus’s rapid spread. Though details remained fluid, the legislation would include direct payments of $1,200 to many American adults and $500 to children, and would create roughly $850 billion in loan and assistance programs for businesses, states and cities. There would also be large spending increases for the unemployment insurance program, as well as hospitals and health-care providers that are being overwhelmed by the crisis.

Democratic concerns have focused on a $500 billion funding program Republicans want to create for loans and loan guarantees, with some Democrats calling it a “slush fund” that lacks any oversight because the Treasury Department would have broad discretion over who receives the money. Asked about this Monday evening, Trump responded, “I’ll be the oversight.”

There is little precedent for a program with a similar size and scope. Republicans have said the funding would be handled appropriately and that a cash infusion of this scale is necessary to address a major economic crisis. As a final step in talks Monday, Senate negotiators were working on putting an oversight mechanism in place.

The situation was in flux, and a handful of issues awaited final resolution Monday evening after four straight days of unsuccessful attempts to finalize a deal — including two procedural votes that Democrats blocked.

Presuming a deal is clinched, lawmakers and administration officials are hoping for swift passage through both chambers of Congress. How the House would process the legislation remains to be determined as House members are currently out of session and seemed unlikely to return en masse to vote, but several options were under review.

Unresolved issues as of Monday evening included several under the jurisdiction of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, related to student loans and other issues, according to one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Negotiators were also working on how to tailor large pots of money that were supposed to be disbursed to the airline industry, state governments and others.

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), leaving a Senate GOP leadership meeting Monday evening, said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a positive report about the state of the talks, suggesting that some Democratic demands had been dropped or addressed.

Cornyn described three-way talks among the White House, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, and said they were keeping in touch about potential pitfalls that might imperil a final deal.

The upbeat assessments marked a positive turn after Democrats blocked the rescue bill earlier in the day. This was part of a rancorous chain of events, with lawmakers venting fury about their failed efforts to address the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. economy. Even senators who are typically careful and measured erupted in anger at their colleagues as the process kept bogging down.

“This is unbelievable,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) exclaimed at one point.

Ahead of the procedural vote, senators clashed angrily over the delays. Some lawmakers had hoped to reach an agreement three days ago, but talks kept breaking down even as they negotiated throughout the weekend. Meanwhile the nation was reeling from the health consequences and economic pain inflicted by the virus.

Democrats have argued that the Senate GOP bill is disproportionately tilted toward helping companies and needs to extend more benefits to families and health-care providers. Republicans have countered that the measure offers unprecedented financial assistance to the entire economy and needs to be passed before more people lose their jobs. Some economists have projected that more than 3 million people were laid off last week as businesses and consumers pulled back, and those numbers are only expected to grow.

The vote Monday was 49 to 46, well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance the legislation for a final debate.

“This has got to stop, and today is the day it has to stop,” an exasperated McConnell said. “The country is out of time.”

McConnell accused Democrats of holding up the sorely needed rescue package so they can try to add extraneous provisions sought by special interests and organized labor. Democrats have refused to support the key procedural vote that would make it easier to pass the bill, with many complaining that the legislation did not include much transparency into which businesses could receive hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency loans.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said that the bill, with its $500 billion program for businesses, states and cities, makes the Senate look “more focused on the big corporations and the health of Wall Street than we are on the health care of the people in rural America and Main Street.” The Trump administration would have wide latitude to disburse these loans and loan guarantees, a dynamic that has given numerous Democrats pause. The Senate bill also includes a $350 billion program to help small businesses meet payroll costs, which is meant to stem the rising tide of layoffs.

Speaking on the Senate floor hours ahead of his conference call with fellow Democrats, Schumer insisted he was continuing to negotiate in good faith with Mnuchin and hoped to secure a deal as long as he could ensure that worker protections were included and that the fund for industries had appropriate controls.

“We have an obligation to get the details right, get them done quickly,” Schumer said. “That doesn’t mean blindly accepting a Republican-only bill.”

As the markets fell Monday, the Senate floor descended into an uproar as Collins sought recognition to speak, which Schumer objected to, prompting Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to exclaim, “This is bullshit!”

The fiery developments reflected rising tensions among lawmakers over the nation’s predicament and what’s happening in the Senate itself; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced Sunday that he has covid-19, and four other GOP senators are quarantined. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) disclosed Monday that her husband, too, is infected with the virus.

But despite the acrimony, negotiations continued. The White House and lawmakers were continuing to push ahead because of obvious signs that major parts of the U.S. economy are reeling. The Dow Jones industrial average has lost more than 10,000 points in six weeks. With more than 40,000 confirmed covid-19 cases in the United States, the effects of the crisis are growing worse.

A number of states are directing citizens to stay home to avoid more contagion, putting pressure on businesses that are losing workers and customers. Many of these companies have rushed to Washington seeking emergency assistance, and health-care providers are overrun and in dire need of testing kits and safety equipment.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) advised everyone to “assume the appropriate distance and take a deep breath.” Several hours later, signs of optimism appeared from both parties, and White House officials became more hopeful that a deal was within reach.

Even as senators were clashing on one side of the Capitol on Monday, on the other side House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was holding a news conference to unveil House Democrats’ version of the stimulus bill. Pelosi’s $2.5 trillion-plus package would send $1,500 to individual Americans; pump money into the health-care system, unemployment insurance and schools; and — according to a draft circulating Monday — require airlines and other companies that receive aid to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

“Democrats take responsibility for our workers,” Pelosi said. “We require that any corporation that takes taxpayer dollars must protect their workers’ wages and benefits — not CEO pay, stock buybacks or layoffs.”

But if the House charts its own course on a competing piece of legislation, it could take even longer to arrive at a bipartisan consensus that can pass both chambers and get signed into law.

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The $500 billion in loan programs in the Senate bill includes $425 billion for companies, states and cities, though it doesn’t prescribe many terms to dictate how the Treasury Department would determine who received the assistance. An additional $50 billion would go to helping passenger airline companies, $8 billion for cargo air companies and $17 billion to help firms deemed important for national security.

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At the insistence of Democrats, who were participating in drafting the bill before bipartisan talks broke down over the weekend, more than $100 billion is being included for hospitals and some $250 billion to boost unemployment insurance. The sweeping economic package is designed to last for 10 to 12 weeks, after which the administration could revisit whether it would seek additional assistance from Congress.

The huge bill now under negotiation is Congress’s third attempt to address the coronavirus crisis. As the scope of the crisis started coming into focus early this month, Congress passed $8.3 billion in emergency spending for the public health system. Then Mnuchin and Pelosi negotiated a $100 billion-plus package that included paid sick leave, a Medicaid expansion, free vaccines and more, which the Senate passed last week despite misgivings by many Senate Republicans over the structure of the paid-sick-leave program.

Along the way, intermittent bipartisanship has given way to occasional partisan outbursts, but partisan rancor now seems to have largely overtaken the process.

Jeff Stein and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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