Washington considers actions to bolster economy

Steve Holland and Richard Cowan –

As US coronavirus cases rose steadily, the White House and Congress negotiated measures to bolster the US economy and Americans’ paychecks against the outbreak’s impact, although there was no immediate sign of a deal.
The rise in the number of US cases of COVID-19, a highly contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness, has concerned health officials and spurred calls within Congress for action to expand testing and avert an economic meltdown.
Almost three-quarters of US states have confirmed COVID-19, with almost 1,000 cases in the United States and 29 deaths. Washington state’s governor warned of tens of thousands more cases without “real action,” and New York’s governor deployed National Guard troops as a containment measure in a hard-hit New York City suburb.
“We had a good reception on Capitol Hill. We’re going to be working with Republican and Democratic leadership to move a legislative package,” Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force, told a White House briefing.
US stocks rebounded in their largest daily gain since late 2018 on hopes that a government stimulus package was in the making.
A central feature of the administration’s legislative proposal is payroll tax relief, although the extent and duration of the proposal were unclear.
White House officials have also said the administration could undertake executive action to help small businesses and workers, including those who do not receive paid sick leave.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is leading negotiations on behalf of Republican President Donald Trump, met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss a possible deal.
“We’re going to work together on a bipartisan basis to figure out how we can get things done quickly that are going to help the Americans that are most impacted by this and small and medium-sized businesses that are impacted,” he said.
Pelosi said the meeting was aimed at seeing “where our common ground was” on a set of legislative proposals.
In remarks to reporters, she warned that any package should not contain “trickle-down solutions that only help a few.” Democrats are challenging the Trump administration to tightly target new measures at people directly affected by the coronavirus. Any measure would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House as well as the Republican-controlled Senate before reaching Trump’s desk.
“I hope we don’t play politics with this. Mixing politics with a pandemic is not good. It’s terribly counterproductive,” said Republican Senator Pat Roberts.
All three major US benchmark stock indexes rose nearly 5 per cent, one day after suffering their largest losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
But prospects for a second day of gains on Wednesday dimmed as US equity index futures slid 1 per cent after the overnight trading session got under way.
Trump met with Republican lawmakers and again downplayed the risks from the coronavirus. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said.
A senior Senate Republican aide said Trump’s payroll tax proposal got “mixed reviews” among Republican senators who attended.
Some Senate Republicans said a potential deal could include $300 billion in payroll tax relief that could help people make rent and mortgage payments, or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the outbreak.
Democrats accused Trump of being more focused on soothing Wall Street’s nerves than on protecting the public from the health and economic fallout of the fast-spreading epidemic. The White House has been accused of inadequate preparation for the outbreak and a slow rollout of coronavirus testing.
“President Trump and his administration should be putting people before corporations, and they should be focused on taking appropriate steps to keep the American people and their economic security safe,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said. Democrats are pushing for paid sick leave, expanded and free testing for the coronavirus and other measures. — Reuters