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Mnuchin defends White House push to reopen economy as Democrats voice growing concerns

One Democrat alleged Mnuchin was putting workers’ lives at risk by moving too quickly

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a Senate Banking Committee videoconference hearing. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

President Trump’s drive to swiftly reopen the economy came under fire Tuesday from Democratic senators who pointedly questioned the administration’s strategy, forcing Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to insist the White House would not sacrifice workers’ lives for economic gain.

But the growing insistence by Trump and Republican lawmakers to push for reopening while halting any new talks about aid has created a stark divide in the government’s approach. As Trump has largely shut down negotiations for more emergency assistance, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell warned Tuesday that much more may be needed.

“We may need to do more, and Congress may, as well,” Powell told lawmakers Tuesday.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell faced questions from senators on May 19 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. (Video: Reuters)

The disconnect between the White House and the Fed was on full display on Capitol Hill. Shortly after Powell said policymakers should remain flexible, Trump suggested to Republican senators at lunch that he might oppose extending unemployment benefits for millions after they expire in July.

More than 36 million Americans have filed unemployment claims over a recent eight-week span, and the labor market continues to weaken.

The unemployment rate could be around 20 percent in July, but Trump has recently soured on the idea of more government aid to cities, states and certain welfare programs, saying more resources should be focused on reopening businesses.

“We’re opening up; the states are opening up,” Trump said following his lunch with GOP senators. “It’s a transition to greatness.”

The comments by Powell and Mnuchin came during a Senate hearing during which they were asked to describe the impact of the nearly $3 trillion Congress has devoted to fighting the pandemic so far. Powell prodded lawmakers to consider additional assistance, but Mnuchin faced attacks for the White House’s push to reopen businesses before there have been more breakthroughs in coronavirus treatments or a vaccine.

“How many workers will die if we send people back to work without the protections they need, Mr. Secretary?” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked Mnuchin. “How many workers should give their lives to increase our [gross domestic product] by half a percent?”

“No workers should give their lives to do that, Mr. Senator, and I think your characterization is unfair,” Mnuchin replied, insisting that the administration is working with governors and has provided “enormous amounts” of protective equipment.

By Wednesday, all 50 states will have begun lifting restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, even as many public health officials continue to raise concerns that increased public gatherings and activity could cause a resurgence of infections in the fall. It’s a debate that has played out within the administration itself, with Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warning last week of avoidable “suffering and death” if reopening proceeds too quickly.

The death toll from the virus in the United States surpassed 90,000 on Tuesday.

The hearing and Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill came as Congress and the administration are enmeshed in an increasingly partisan debate. Democrats are pressing to spend more money to keep afloat closed businesses and unemployed workers, while many Republicans and administration officials say it’s time to stop passing massive relief bills and get the economy up and running. The potential health risks involved in reopening hang over the Capitol itself, where multiple Democratic senators have criticized Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for bringing the Senate back into session, saying he is endangering the lives of workers at a time when Washington, D.C., is under a stay-at-home order.

Republican senators used the hearing to press Powell and Mnuchin on the dangers of keeping the economy shut down for too long.

“When weeks turn into months, doesn’t that necessarily increase the risk that some businesses will fail, some jobs won’t be there to go back to?” asked Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).

Mnuchin agreed, saying: “That’s absolutely the case, Mr. Senator. There is the risk of permanent damage. And as I’ve said before, we’re conscious of the health issues, and we want to do this in a balanced and safe way.”

But Democrats questioned whether the administration is proceeding safely. In an appearance on MSNBC, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized the “whimsical, impulsive and erratic behavior of the president,” who announced on Monday he is taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that doctors say has no proven value in preventing the coronavirus. It’s the latest example, along with his refusal to wear a mask, of Trump’s failure to model health practices recommended by his administration.

“You need a careful balance,” Schumer said. “Obviously, there’s an economic need to get things moving, but there’s also a health-care need to make sure that this virus is wiped out and can’t come back again.”

Inside the GOP lunch Tuesday, Trump expressed opposition to extending a $600-per-week boost in unemployment benefits after the increase expires in July, according to three officials briefed on the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a closed-door discussion. The increased benefits were passed as part of a $2 trillion relief package in late March, and House Democrats want to extend the aid through January 2021.

Many economists say cutting off the benefit extension could hamper the recovery. But congressional Republicans have started to express concerns that some workers are actually making more money on unemployment insurance than if they were on a payroll.

Trump also implored Senate Republicans to take their time on the next phase of coronavirus legislation to get it right, according to the officials. The president, a vocal critic of voting by mail even though he has done so himself, also objected to provisions in the House Democratic plan passed last week that would expand voting options ahead of the November election, including mail-in balloting, according to two of the officials.

Democrats tried to get Powell to express support for more federal spending, after the Fed chair said last week that it could be “costly but worth it” to shore up an economy in which more than 30 million people have filed for unemployment in two months. House Democrats had repeatedly cited those comments from Powell last week as they pushed through a $3 trillion spending package despite GOP objections and a veto threat from Trump.

Powell was careful not to be caught in a partisan fight, appearing to choose his words carefully.

“This is the biggest shock we’ve seen in living memory, and the question looms in the air: ‘Is it enough?’ ” Powell said at one point. He did not answer his own question.

Powell and Mnuchin also faced numerous questions about whether the government was acting quickly enough to arrest the economic downturn. The hearing marked the first time two of the main architects of the government’s economic response testified together before a congressional panel, something they are required to do quarterly under the terms of the $2 trillion Cares Act.

Mnuchin said Tuesday he is still working to erect programs that were authorized two months ago. He also said the economy would continue to weaken, at least in the short term.

“I think the jobs numbers will be worse before they get better,” Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin has been the administration’s point person in negotiating the four bipartisan relief bills Congress has passed, and he is responsible for a $500 billion fund that is supposed to issue loans to numerous sectors of the economy, including large corporations, cities and states, and businesses that were too big to qualify for the small-business Paycheck Protection Program, which was funded separately.

The loans will be backed by the Federal Reserve, and Mnuchin and Powell faced questions about when the money would be made available after a report on Monday from the Congressional Oversight Commission, created by the Cares Act, said only a fraction has been allocated.

“The Cares Act is the biggest rescue package in the history of Congress, and we need to make sure the dollars and program quickly find their mark,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said at the outset of the hearing.

Powell said the money should start to flow by the end of this month.

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