Lisa Mascaro

GOP splits as virus aid package could swell past $1 trillion

WASHINGTON (AP) — The price tag for the next COVID-19 aid package could quickly swell above $1 trillion as White House officials negotiate with Congress over money to reopen schools, prop up small businesses, boost virus testing and keep cash flowing to Americans while the virus crisis deepens. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on July 21 promised a new round of direct payments to earners below a certain income level, similar to the $1,200 checks sent in the spring. President Donald Trump insists on a payroll tax holiday for workers. And Democrats want billions to outfit schools and shore up local governments. “Regretfully, this is not over,” McConnell said after a raucous private GOP lunch, urging Americans to learn to live with the virus by wearing masks and practicing social distancing until a vaccine is found. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting chief of staff Mark Meadows spent the day on Capitol Hill, meeting separately with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others trying to broker a compromise between the GOP’s emerging $1 trillion proposal with the House’s more sweeping $3 trillion bill. The lunch session grew heated as key Republican senators complained about big spending, vowing to stall the relief bill’s passage. Supporters of the package “should be ashamed of themselves,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said as he emerged. Paul compared GOP backers of the spending to “Bernie bros” — referring to the young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “This is insane,” he said. “There’s no difference now between the two parties.” As senators rose to speak about aspects of the bill, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked his colleagues, “What in the hell are we doing?” Cruz warned if the economy is still shut down come November, Joe Biden will win the White House, Democrats will control the Senate and “we’ll be meeting in a much smaller lunch room,” according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida left saying it’s wrong to “bail out” cash-strapped states. “Florida taxpayers are not going to pay for New York’s expenses,” he said. With the pandemic showing no signs of easing, officials acknowledge the daunting challenge of trying to contain the coronavirus and prevent further economic distress. The U.S. has rising infections and a death toll exceeding 142,000, more than anywhere else in the world. The health crisis is worsening as emergency aid is about to expire. Meadows told reporters Trump wants to ensure the funding package “meets the legitimate needs that are before the American people.” Democratic leaders said the Republicans are in disarray, and Pelosi later blamed the pandemic’s mounting toll on Trump’s inaction. “It is the Trump virus,” she said on CNN. The Republicans are poised to roll out a $1 trillion package, what McConnell called a “starting point” in talks. It’s a counter-offer to Pelosi’s $3 trillion House-passed plan as they race to strike a deal by the end of the month. That’s when a $600 weekly unemployment benefits boost and other aid, including a federal rental moratorium on millions of apartment units, expires. McConnell’s package would send a fresh round of cash payments to Americans below a certain income level, likely $75,000 for singles, extend small business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program and create a five-year liability shield against what he warns is a potential “epidemic” of coronavirus lawsuits. It’s also expected to include at least $105 billion for education, with $70 billion to help K-12 schools reopen, $30 billion for colleges and $5 billion for governors to allocate. The Trump administration wanted school money linked to re-openings, but in McConnell’s package the money for K-12 would be split 50-50 between those that have in-person learning and those that don’t. Republicans said they want to replace the $600 weekly federal jobless benefit with a lower amount, to prevent the unemployed from receiving more aid than they would through a normal paycheck. Over lunch, Mnuchin explained the unemployment boost could be phased down to a percentage of a worker’s previous income, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Some Republicans prefer simply eliminating the $600 benefit. But Trump’s priorities are splitting his GOP allies and giving momentum to Democrats. Trump wants a full repeal of the 15.3 percent payroll tax, which is shared among employers and employees, and funds Social Security and Medicare. Experts say that alone would cost $600 billion. At a White House meeting Monday, GOP leaders told Trump they preferred including only a partial payroll tax cut. Easing the payroll tax is dividing Trump’s party because it does little to help out-of-work Americans and adds to the debt load. The tax is already being deferred for employers under the previous virus relief package. Supporters say cutting it now for employees would put money in people’s pockets and stimulate the economy. The administration also panned McConnell’s proposed $25 billion for more virus testing, saying earlier allotments remain unspent. Senate Democrats began investigating why the Trump administration has left almost half the testing money unspent. The political stakes are high for both parties before the November election, and even more so for the nation, as amid the virus crisis and economic fallout. Biden, the Democrats’ presumed presidential nominee, stated his own priorities, urging “a lifeline to those who need it most: working families and small businesses.” Trump’s renewed focus on therapeutics and a vaccine is falling flat among lawmakers who understand any COVID-19 cures remain months, if not a year, from widespread distribution in the U.S. The federal government is struggling to provide basic medical supplies and personal protective equipment to health care providers. Mnuchin vowed to stay on Capitol Hill for the next two weeks, determined to reach a deal this month. The proposed virus aid package would be the fifth, following the $2.2 trillion bill passed in March, the largest U.S. intervention of its kind. The jobless rate has remained in double digits, higher than in the last decade’s Great Recession, and a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units approved in the last bill is about to expire. Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Darlene Superville, Alexandra Jaffe and Padmananda Rama contributed.

Trump wants quick checks sent to public in virus response

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is asking Congress to unleash a torrent of emergency economic aid to help people through the financial pain of the coronavirus crisis, with sizable checks directly to Americans as part of the deal. Trump wants checks out to the public within two weeks, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said March 17 as state and local officials acted more forcefully to restrict gatherings and mobility in the face of growing sickness. “The president has instructed me we have to do this now,” he said. The proposal to send checks requires approval from Congress. Details were scant, except Mnuchin said the yet-to-be disclosed amount should be significant and millionaires won’t get it. “We want to make sure Americans get money in their pockets quickly,” Mnuchin said. After a savage drop March 16, the stock market rose during the briefing at which Trump and his aides sketched out elements of the economic rescue package. Mnuchin was pitching the roughly $850 billion package to Senate Republicans at a private lunch, with officials aiming to have Congress approve it this week. Some lawmakers were skeptical. “I’m going to be very leery of doing something like in 2008,” said Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun. But the other senator from Indiana, Todd Young, chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee, said he was open to approving $1,000 checks and wants aid out the door as as soon as possible. He said he was the only passenger on his flight back to Washington. Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised swift action of some sort. “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,” McConnell said. Bigger than the 2008 bank bailout or the 2009 recovery act, the White House proposal aims to provide a massive tax cut for wage-earners, $50 billion for the airline industry and $250 billion for small businesses. Two people familiar with the request described it to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, spoke by phone with Mnuchin in the morning. The Democrats “emphasized that protecting workers’ paychecks and benefits was their top priority, and that immediate action was needed,” said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman. Congress was being asked to approve the most far-reaching economic rescue package since the Great Recession of 2008. “There’s great spirit” among lawmakers, President Donald Trump said at the White House briefing as he outlined several elements of the rescue plan. “I can say that for Republicans and Democrats.” But it’s an enormous political and economic undertaking as a slow-moving Congress tries to rise to the occasion of these fast times. The debate is sure to revive the sharp divisions over the costly bank bailout and economic recovery of the Obama and Bush era. Particularly striking is McConnell’s urgency after having adjourned the Senate over the weekend while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi muscled through an aid package. Angry senators from both parties boarded planes returning to a changed Washington, as Trump declared a state of emergency, the virus spread and the economic free-fall worsened. Despite federal guidelines against so many people gathering, senators had no choice but to convene. Legislating cannot be done from home. The House is on a recess. The White House hopes the measure will pass quickly, possibly this week, an enormous political undertaking as the administration scrambled to contain the economic fallout of the severe disruptions to American life from the outbreak. The rush to inject cash and resources into the economy is an effort unlike any since the 2008 economic crisis, with political and economic interventions and eye-popping sums to try to protect Americans from the health and financial fallout. The new proposal is beyond the House’s estimated $100 billion aid package of sick pay, emergency food aid and free virus testing that was approved over the weekend and is pending before the Senate. Now Congress will be rushing to pass two — a massive, sweeping response to the virus outbreak that is rewriting America’s way of life. Muscling the aid will test Congress and the White House at a pivotal moment in the crisis and in an election year when the two parties have vastly different outlooks on the best way to prop up the economy and help Americans. Senate Democrats have proposed their own $750 billion package — boosting hospital capacity and unemployment checks for the suddenly jobless — with deep negotiations to come. All sides — the House, Senate and White House — agree more federal resources are needed to handle what’s coming. At the start of the month, Congress approved $8.3 billion in initial aid. Trump quickly signed into law the measure, which provided federal agencies money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments, and funding to help state and local governments respond to the threat. During the recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed in February of that year, had an initial price tag of $787 billion which was revised later to $831 billion. That was under Barack Obama. The TARP passed in the fall of 2008 to help troubled banks had a price tag of $700 billion. It was put together by the George W. Bush administration, and provided money for the auto bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler. All of that money for the banks and the auto companies was paid back. Now, Republicans often reluctant to spend federal dollars did not flinch at the head-spinning number, as a roster of America’s big and small industries — airlines, hotels, retailers — lined up for aid. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called for sending $1,000 to every adult American — an idea the White House now is proposing, though not necessarily that sum. Industries representing a broad swath of the economy are seeking help in withstanding the fallout as schools close and Americans are being told they should stay inside, skip nonessential travel and avoid gatherings with 10 people or more. That means no dining out, no boarding planes, no shopping the malls as a great national shutdown sparks business closures, layoffs and lost paychecks for rents, mortgages and everyday needs. The nation’s largest business organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, asked the Trump administration and Congress on March 16 to act rapidly to help companies have access to cash and avert a “potentially devastating” hit to the economy. The request from the U.S. airlines alone could easily top $50 billion, according to Airlines for America, the trade group representing the carriers. Pulling together the new package will challenge the basic logistics of governing as Congress itself struggled to adapt to the new normal. House Democrats were told on a conference call they won’t be recalled to Washington until the next package is ready for action, according to people familiar with the call but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Martin Crutsinger, Colleen Long and Kevin Freking in Washington, Philip Marcelo in Boston and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.

Kavanaugh begins making his case to senators

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, mapped out strategy with Republican leaders July 10, launching a fierce confirmation battle that could remake the court for decades and roil the midterm elections in the meantime. Kavanaugh, 53, a favorite of the GOP establishment, first huddled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Joining him were Vice President Mike Pence and former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. He also met for roughly 30 minutes with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that is taking the first close look at the nomination. While Republicans have set a goal of confirming Kavanaugh this fall, Grassley said speed isn’t the goal. The vetting process, he said, is “going to be thorough and going to be done right.” He did not offer a timeline for confirmation hearings. Republicans have reacted positively to Trump’s pick, but McConnell has little margin of error for the final vote unless a few Democrats can be brought onboard. Republicans hold a slim 51-49 Senate majority, but they hope to gain support for Kavanaugh from a handful of Democrats who are up for re-election in states where Trump is popular. McConnell called Kavanaugh “one of the most thoughtful jurists” in the country and blasted Democrats as “eager to try and turn judicial confirmations into something like political elections.” The GOP leader warned against engaging in “cheap political fear-mongering.” “We’ll hear all kinds of fantastic stories about the pain and suffering that this perfectly qualified, widely respected judge will somehow unleash on America if we confirm him to the court,” McConnell said. Pence called Kavanaugh a “good man.” Democrats are uniting behind a strategy to turn the confirmation fight into a referendum on conservatives’ efforts to undo abortion access and chip away at other health care protections under the Affordable Care Act. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York is vowing to fight the nomination “with everything I have.” Schumer warned, “In selecting Judge Kavanaugh, President Trump did exactly what he said he would do on the campaign trail — nominate someone who will overturn women’s reproductive rights and strike down health care protections for millions of Americans.” The Democrats have turned their attention to pressuring two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to oppose any nominee who threatens the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The two have supported access to abortion services. “We’ve got some due diligence that we’ve got to do,” Murkowski said July 10. Collins said Kavanaugh is “clearly qualified” but other issues also will come into play for her, specifically “judicial temperament” and “judicial philosophy.” Kavanaugh in the past has made statements about respecting precedent that could help in winning over Murkowski and Collins. In his 2006 confirmation hearing to become a federal judge, Kavanaugh said, “I would follow Roe v. Wade faithfully and fully” because it’s “binding precedent” that has been “reaffirmed many times.” Yet there’s little doubt that Kavanaugh, a solidly conservative, politically connected judge, would shift the nation’s highest court further to the right. A product of the Republican legal establishment in Washington, Kavanaugh, 53, is a former law clerk for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Like Trump’s first nominee last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh would be a young addition who could help remake the court for decades with rulings that could restrict abortion, expand gun rights and roll back key parts of “Obamacare.” In a prime-time televised announcement Trump called Kavanaugh “one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time.” “Brett Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews — rave reviews — actually, from both sides,” Trump said July 10 as he left the White House for a weeklong overseas trip. “And I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch over the next month.” With Kavanaugh, Trump is replacing a swing vote on the nine-member court with a staunch conservative. Kavanaugh, who serves on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, has taken an expansive view of executive power and has favored limits on investigating the president. Speaking at the White House, Kavanaugh pledged to preserve the Constitution and said that “a judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law.” Some conservative and libertarian-leaning activists were disappointed by the pick and doubted it would provide Republicans with the midterm election boost they are looking for to motivate voters to the polls. “This is going to give heartburn to some conservatives,” said Brian Darling, a former Republican counsel to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “It’s not the pick conservatives had hoped for.” Paul was among some Republican senators who had favored other options. But the senator tweeted after the announcement that he looked forward to meeting Kavanaugh “with an open mind.” Like the other eight justices on the court, Kavanaugh has an Ivy League law degree, spending his undergraduate and law school years at Yale. Since 2006, he has been a judge on the federal appeals court in Washington. He also was a key aide to Kenneth Starr during Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, worked on behalf of George W. Bush’s campaign during the election recount in 2000 and served in the Bush White House. Kavanaugh’s many written opinions provide insight into his thinking and also will be fodder for Senate Democrats who will seek to block his confirmation. He has written roughly 300 opinions as a judge, authored several law journal articles, regularly taught law school classes and spoken frequently in public. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Mark Sherman, Laurie Kellman and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Banking bill brings out Schumer’s messy midterm strategy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made clear almost two weeks ago that he would vote against a bill that eases some of the Dodd-Frank regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. He also made clear he wouldn’t try to stop it. As more than a dozen Democratic senators helped Republicans chip away at the Obama-era banking law March 14, Schumer largely stepped aside, rather than twist arms. It was a do-what-you-must strategy aimed at allowing some moderate Democratic senators to avoid the wrath of powerful banking interests back home. But it also split the party and, some argued, muddied the party’s populist message against President Donald Trump ahead of the midterm election. For Schumer it was a crucial test of how he intends to shepherd a deeply divided group of Democrats through a difficult campaign year, and beyond. While some of his predecessors might have blocked the vote or tried to hold troops in line, Schumer, a New Yorker unafraid of noisy disagreements, was comfortable with some fights within the family. “When half of our caucus sides with Republicans and the banks, it’s impossible to rise above the din and show that we’re on the side of the working class,” said Brian Fallon, a former top Schumer aide who later advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “You can’t blame leader Schumer for not wanting to twist the arms of red-state Democrats against home-state banking interests,” Fallon said, “but from the standpoint of the larger party messaging, it’s a missed opportunity to not strike a bright-line contrast on behalf of consumers.” The Senate approved the bill 67-31. Schumer put the party on this path last fall when he agreed to allow four Democratic senators — almost all of them up for re-election in states Trump won — to work with Senate Banking Committee Republicans on legislation to ease regulations imposed after the 2008 financial crisis. Initial talks between Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the panel’s chairman, and its top Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, broke down as Democrats said the changes went too far. But within a month of gaining Schumer’s nod, the Democratic senators — Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Mark Warner of Virginia — struck a deal with Republicans. Their compromise sailed through the committee. Moderates say the changes they have been seeking for years are needed to help small and mid-size banks, particularly in rural regions, that can’t afford to keep up with the regulations. But liberals argue it goes too far in lifting requirements on bigger banks that received federal bailout funds. Seizing the opening for a legislative victory — and a bipartisan bill that divides Democrats — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved it swiftly to the floor. Schumer, GOP aides said, was getting rolled. The left flank hammered Democrats for cozying up to bankers — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren named names of fellow Democratic senators in an email blast. But even if the Warren wing tried to filibuster, the GOP majority — with the support of Democrats — had more than the 60 votes needed to overcome a blockade. About the only option left was the war of words. And it has been explosive. “This bill wouldn’t be on the path to becoming law without the support of these Democrats,” Warren chided colleagues in a tweet. “Calling out members of my own party who are supporting the #BankLobbyistAct doesn’t make me the most popular kid on the team. But that’s not why I ran for the Senate,” she said in another. Heitkamp shot back Monday that she didn’t come to the Senate to “worry about whether we were keeping the caucus together.” “I came here to represent North Dakota, and that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she told The Associated Press, adding that her local bankers say they’ll be able to do more lending if the bill is passed. “It really will make a huge difference for rural America.” Schumer has mostly stood by as tensions flared. At a recent closed-door luncheon, moderate senators — they were taken aback by the directness of the attacks — told Warren she needs to stop. Schumer did tell Warren to focus her opposition on the substance of the bill, rather than its supporters, according to a person familiar with the exchange. Warren responded that working on these issues was why she ran for the Senate, according to another person familiar with the conversation. Both people requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private conversation publicly. But Schumer has largely let the caucus handle those disagreements among themselves, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the issues who was not authorized to discuss the private session publicly and requested anonymity. Senators, the aide said, don’t want him to micro-manage. Schumer rose to become party leader after helping Democrats win tough elections in states now dominated by Trump voters when he was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee more than a decade ago. At the time, Wall Street money flowed to Democrats as well as Republicans. Part of his appeal in taking over for retiring Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., after the 2016 election was a promise to stitch together the party’s liberal and conservative wings, bringing Warren and moderate Democrats into caucus leadership positions. Schumer has kept them together more than many expected, especially as 10 Democratic senators run for re-election from Trump-won states. Senate Democrats held the line against GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and put up a fight against the president’s nominees. All voted against the GOP tax plan. Where Reid might have halted the banking bill by pushing more Democrats to oppose it — a strategy that often prevented infighting but left some senators frustrated with inaction — Schumer decided to let the process play out. The outcome this week, though messy, could allow all sides to claim wins. Liberals take a populist stand that revs up the base and moderates strike a bipartisan compromise for their home-states. “He’s dealing with this little internecine war as good as could be expected,” said Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide. “That’s an integral part of the playbook. Sometimes a good leader knows there are different ways for members to claim victory.”
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