WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. worsens, Congress and the White House are eyeing a third stimulus package to address the economic effects of the pandemic.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin prepared an aid package that he told reporters could amount to at least $1 trillion and presented it Tuesday to Senate Republicans during their weekly closed-door lunch on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke to reporters after the lunch and wasn't ready to identify the cost of the third bill yet. He said only that the legislation would be of "much larger proportions" necessary to address the crisis.
"We need to directly help American workers and families face this uncertain period, and particularly we're examining policy tools to put money directly and quickly into the hands of American families," he said. "We also need to move swiftly and boldly in a major way to help American small businesses survive this disruption and thrive on the other side of it. In particular, we are preparing bold steps to ensure that Main Street can access liquidity and credit during this extraordinary time."
McConnell said Republicans will first try to reach an agreement among themselves and then will begin negotiating with Democrats on the third measure. The Senate, he said, will first pass the second aid package approved by the House early Saturday, which he said a number of his members think has "considerable shortcomings."
"My counsel to them is to gag and vote for it," he said.
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Earlier in the day, during the White House coronavirus task force briefing, Mnuchin told reporters that a payroll tax holiday or cut, previously floated by President Donald Trump, would get Americans money in six to eight months but that the administration wants to disburse funds much faster as part of a third stimulus proposal.
"We're looking at sending checks to Americans immediately. And what we've heard from hard-working Americans, many companies have now shut down, whether it's bars or restaurants. Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now. And I mean, now, in the next two weeks," he said.
"We want to do something that gets money to them as quickly as possible," Trump said about the idea that Mnuchin will unveil first to Senate Republicans.
In a closed-door lunch, the White House message to Senate Republicans was that if the Senate acts quickly, checks could go out by late April, according to a source in the room.
Asked about assistance for the airline industry, Mnuchin said during the White House briefing earlier that "this is worse than 9/11 for the airline industry," because it has almost ground to a halt. He suggested that the industry will get help from the federal government.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, McConnell said Congress needs to provide more "direct assistance" to workers and families and to enact "further strong steps to secure our economic foundation," especially small businesses. He also said Congress must help support medical professionals on the front lines.
McConnell said that the Senate won't leave Washington until lawmakers pass additional aid packages.
"It's my intention that the Senate will not adjourn until we have passed significant and bold new steps, above and beyond what the House has passed, to help our strong nation and our strong underlying economy weather this storm," he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have prepared their own package, which would cost at least $750 billion. While the Senate is controlled by Republicans, any aid packages will ultimately have to be bipartisan because any bill requires 60 votes in the Senate to pass, and it will have to pass the Democratic-controlled House.
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Given those dynamics, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., planned to present the plan to his Democratic caucus in a PowerPoint presentation during a tele-lunch Tuesday.
He planned to "explain the contrast to the GOP's expected proposals of industry bailouts and tax cuts," a senior Democratic aide said.
Republicans want to take the lead on the next phase because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democrats set the agenda for the first two phases of coronavirus aid. But Schumer, knowing any bill in the Senate requires 60 votes to reach final passage, is trying to assert his priorities.
Congress recently passed a $8.3 billion aid package, which Trump signed March 6.
The House passed the second aid package early Saturday after several days of negotiations between Pelosi and Mnuchin. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, held up the bill Monday in the House as the Democrats tried to pass technical corrections. He finally relented Monday night, and it was passed out of the House, sending it to the Senate for a vote that will likely be sometime this week.