ZEKE MILLER

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.

EPA Administrator Pruitt resigns

WASHINGTON (AP) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday amid ethics investigations of outsized security spending, first-class flights and a sweetheart condo lease. With Pruitt's departure, President Donald Trump loses an administrator many conservatives regarded as one of the more effective members of his Cabinet. But Pruitt had also been dogged for months by a seemingly unending string of ethics scandals that spawned more than a dozen federal and congressional investigations. Pruitt had appeared Wednesday at a White House picnic for Independence Day, wearing a red-checked shirt and loafers with gold trim. Trump gave him and other officials a brief shout-out, offering no sign of any immediate change in his job. Trump said in a tweet Thursday that Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry executive, will assume the acting administrator position Monday. A former Oklahoma attorney general close to the oil and gas industry, Pruitt had filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the agency he was picked to lead. Arriving in Washington, he worked relentlessly to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations that aimed to reduce toxic pollution and planet-warming carbon emissions. During his one-year tenure, Pruitt crisscrossed the country at taxpayer expense to speak with industry groups and hobnob with GOP donors, but he showed little interest in listening to advocates he derided as "the environmental left." Those groups applauded his departure. "Despite his brief tenure, Pruitt was the worst EPA chief in history," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "His corruption was his downfall, but his pro-polluter policies will have our kids breathing dirtier air long after his many scandals are forgotten." Like Trump, Pruitt voiced skepticism about mainstream climate science and was a fierce critic of the Paris climate agreement. The president cheered his EPA chief's moves to boost fossil fuel production and roll back regulations opposed by corporate interests. But despite boasts of slashing red tape and promoting job creation, Pruitt had a mixed record of producing real-world results. Many of the EPA regulations Pruitt scraped or delayed had not yet taken effect, and the tens of thousands of lost coal mining jobs the president pledged to bring back never materialized. Pruitt was forced out following a series of revelations involving pricey trips with first-class airline seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls. He also demanded 24-hour-a-day protection from armed officers, resulting in a swollen 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses of more than $3 million. Pruitt also had ordered his EPA staff to do personal chores for him, picking up dry cleaning and trying to obtain a used Trump hotel mattress for his apartment. He had also enlisted his staff to contact conservative groups and companies to find a lucrative job for his unemployed wife, including emails seeking a Chick-fil-A franchise from a senior executive at the fast-food chain. Pruitt's job had been in jeopardy since the end of March, when ABC News first reported that he leased a Capitol Hill condo last year for just $50 a night. It was co-owned by the wife of a veteran fossil fuels lobbyist whose firm had sought regulatory rollbacks from EPA. Both Pruitt and the lobbyist, Steven Hart, denied he had conducted any recent business with EPA. But Hart was later forced to admit he had met with Pruitt at EPA headquarters last summer after his firm, Williams & Jensen, revealed he had lobbied the agency on a required federal disclosure form. Pruitt also publicly denied any knowledge of massive raises awarded to two close aides he had brought with him to EPA from Oklahoma. Documents later showed Pruitt's chief of staff had signed off on the pay hikes, indicating he had the administrator's consent. Pruitt is the latest Trump Cabinet official to lose his job over ethics issues. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March amid questionable travel charges and a growing rebellion in his agency about the privatization of medical care. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was fired last year after it was disclosed he took costly charter flights instead of commercial planes. Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck  
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