Hopes rising for stimulus deal
Top negotiators said they expected to complete an agreement Tuesday morning on a $2 trillion financial rescue package that the Senate could vote on by nightfall.
After a marathon day and night of intensive backroom bargaining, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer emerged from his office just before midnight to announce that a deal was almost in place to soften the economic blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We expect to have an agreement tomorrow morning," the New York Democrat told reporters after several meetings with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. "There are still a few little differences. Neither of us think they're in any way going to get in the way of a final agreement."
Mnuchin, the Trump administration's point man on the talks, echoed that assessment. "There's still a couple of open issues, but I think we're very hopeful that this can be closed out tomorrow," he said.
Schumer said he was satisfied that the two main priorities sought by Democrats would now be part of the legislation: greater protections for workers and a World War II-style Marshall Plan to support hospitals and other medical needs as the pandemic sickens thousands of people nationwide.
He declined to specify the remaining sticking points to a deal, saying only, "It's a huge bill of $2 trillion with many moving parts."
Eric Ueland, the White House legislative liaison, said negotiators still needed time to review legislative text and ensure that all sides are comfortable with the language. He said meetings would resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The package, whenever finalized, was sure to offer cash payments to families, loans to business and an expanded social safety net designed to help weather the job losses and economic decline triggered by the pandemic.
A $2 trillion package would be equal to more than 9 percent of gross domestic product. By comparison, the 2009 economic stimulus (PL 111-5) enacted in the throes of the Great Recession was estimated to cost just shy of $800 billion, or around 5 percent of GDP at the time.
Lawmakers had already made some headway in negotiations earlier Monday. In one bipartisan compromise, lawmakers agreed to provide expanded unemployment insurance benefits, adding $600 a week for four months, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. An initial Republican proposal offered three months and Democrats sought six months, he said.
Republicans had also appeared to be bending toward Democratic demands for increased funding for hospitals and state and local governments, although it wasn't clear that a firm deal had been reached. "I'm very pleased with the progress we've made on behalf of the president to support the work that hospitals are doing out in every community across the United States," Ueland said.
The slow pace of talks in recent days prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to introduce her own economic package (HR 6379) Monday that could raise the overall price tag to as much as $2.5 trillion. But it wasn't yet clear that House leaders would pursue that legislation if the Senate locks down a bipartisan deal.
The bottom line: A massive stimulus agreement is getting closer.
Virtual budget hearings considered
The Senate Appropriations Committee could soon jump on the telework bandwagon.
Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Monday that the panel's dozen subcommittees might hold virtual hearings on the Trump administration's fiscal 2021 budget request if the Senate holds an extended recess after passing a massive stimulus package to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think we can work that out in a virtual manner," the Alabama Republican said, when asked if he was planning to schedule the hearings that mark the beginning of the annual appropriations process.
The panel could also skip holding additional hearings altogether. "We might not do the hearings. We'll have to decide, ultimately, if we need to do the hearings," Shelby said. "We don't have to do the hearings."
The Senate Appropriations Committee has held several hearings already but was not particularly far into the process when the Senate turned its attention to legislation meant to reduce the global health and economic crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.
Trump floats relaxing social distancing guidelines within weeks
President Donald Trump indicated he was still open to lifting social distance guidelines at the end of the 15-day timeframe next week, even after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned the country has yet to see the worst of the outbreak.
Trump told reporters that he would revisit the guidelines when they expire March 30, but said he wouldn't wait more than a few weeks to lift the advisory.
"Our country's learned a lot," Trump said Monday, suggesting the country could still recover under less stringent guidelines. "We've learned about social distancing, we've learned about the hands."
The comments came after another dismal day for the stock market, with the Dow Jones closing down 582 points. Trump previously tweeted his frustration Sunday:
"WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF," he said. "AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!"
Trump also issued an executive order to crack down on those hoarding medical supplies by designating some supplies as scarce, Mary Ellen McIntire reports.
Telehealth seizes the moment
Telehealth companies big and small are ramping up services as the coronavirus outbreak deepens, working overtime to accommodate a surge of new patients and doctors.
The rise in telemedicine has both healthy and sick patients avoiding in-person appointments to conserve resources and maintain distance from others. Both state and federal leaders are relaxing restrictions around telehealth amid the emergency, and advocates hope the changes will be permanent.
The pandemic is providing an opportunity for IT companies to showcase the benefits of the technology in times of crisis, and the rapid uptick in telehealth access could better prepare the country for the next health emergency.