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White House, Congress agree on $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill

By ANDREW TAYLOR and LISA MASCARO

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders raced to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday and win passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage as the virus took lives and jobs by the hour.

Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over. Yet he implored Congress late in the day to move on critical aid without further delay.

The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

“A fight has arrived on our shores,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.”

“Big help, quick help, is on the way,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

But the drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes, saying the legislation as written “incentivizes layoffs” and should be altered to ensure employees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.

Complicating the standoff, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has flagged, said he would block the bill unless the conservatives dropped their objections.

“What I am saying is that two can play the same game,” Sanders told The Associated Press. “This is most certainly not the bill that I or any other progressive would have written,” he said, but added that he supports it in the main, given the severity of the crisis.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the package “goes a long way.” He said it will require strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don’t benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.

McConnell and Schumer hoped passage of the legislation in the Republican-led Senate would come by the end of the day. Stocks posted their first back-to-back gains in weeks as the package took shape over the last two days, but much of Wednesday’s early rally faded as the hitch developed in the Senate. The market is down nearly 27% since setting a record high a month ago.

Senate passage would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bipartisan agreement “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people” but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.

“House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action,” she said.

House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.

White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The wording of some final pieces of the agreement need to be completed.

The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

McConnell, a key negotiator, said the package will “rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation’s health care fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was never an option, which permitted both sides to mark big wins.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at Schumer’s insistence. Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Schumer said businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

The New York Democrat immediately sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospital, and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday to maneuver for such gains.

But Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Still, Pelosi said the need for more money for New York is “no reason to stop the step we are taking.”

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics said was political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paychecks. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 bank rescue, officials said.

Europe is enacting its own economic recovery packages, with huge amounts of credit guarantees, government spending and other support.

Germany alone, Europe’s biggest economy, has agreed to commit over 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in fiscal stimulus and support — roughly 30 percent of that nation’s entire annual output.

France, Spain and Italy have launched similar programs. The European Union has suspended limits it imposes on member countries’ borrowing and deficits, freeing them to spend more.

Some of Europe’s fiscal stimulus kicks in automatically without any new legislation due to social welfare safety nets that are more extensive than in the U.S.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

In the United States, more than 55,000 people have been sickened and more than 800 have died.

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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Biden struggles to find a message that gets him back on voters’ radar

It was another tough break for Joe Biden in his struggle for relevance while the nation wrestles with the pandemic: The former vice president was poised to appear before the vast audience of ABC’s “The View,” but before his interview started earlier this week, the show vanished from TV screens as network affiliates cut away to cover New York’s governor and Washington’s mayor addressing the coronavirus threat.

That encapsulated the brutal challenge Biden’s presidential campaign faces as he tries to connect with voters preoccupied with more pressing matters than politics.

Even as President Trump fumbles his way through the outbreak, there are risks for Biden if he remains in the background of this ever-changing public crisis. Fresh polling this week shows a diminished lead for Democrats in November, and Trump’s approval rating mostly stable despite heavy criticism of his early efforts to downplay the significance of the pandemic.

That leaves Biden in uncharted territory, a candidate awkwardly adjusting to the new reality of virtual campaigning and struggling to find a message that gets him back on voters’ radar.

He is making a concerted effort this week to raise his public profile, holding daily media events from a television studio newly installed in his home in Wilmington, Del., where he is housebound because of the pandemic. After days of being all but invisible, he gave interviews to “The View,” CNN and MSNBC, and Wednesday he held his first news conference via Zoom. Also on Wednesday, Biden launched a campaign newsletter and in its first edition announced he would soon start producing a podcast.

Despite the media blitz, Biden is feeling the limits of his impact because, unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is now a media star, Biden has no real governing power.

“I’m champing at the bit,” Biden said in his news conference. “I wish I were still in the Senate, and able to impact some of these things. But I am where I am.”

His supporters are also groping for a new strategy.

“Everybody is navigating a new world,” said Steve Schale, an advisor to Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden that just launched a fresh ad attacking Trump’s response to COVID-19. “There is no easy answer to this. There is nothing normal about this moment. Yet the political calendar doesn’t take a break.”

Another multimillion-dollar political committee supporting Biden, Priorities USA, recently launched its own new $6-million ad campaign aimed at helping Biden elbow his way back into public debate about COVID-19, including one spot that contrasts the chaos of Trump’s actions with clips of a resolute and confident Biden vowing to “lead with science.”

The marketing blitz, though, is undermined by a Biden campaign that still seems unprepared for this moment. The jury-rigged television studio in the rec room of Biden’s house projects more like a home-movie production than a high-tech presidential campaign.

He gave his first speech — about COVID-19, of course — on Monday, amid confusion about when the remarks would start. Biden got out of sync with the teleprompter and lost his place. He called the governor of Massachusetts “Charlie Parker” (his last name is Baker).

That was the bad news. The good news was that viewership was limited. None of the major television stations carried it live. It both relieved and frustrated many backers of the former vice president. The operational glitches of the campaign right now make them cringe.

Still, Biden supporters believe that the public health emergency wracking the nation cries out for a serious, experienced, stable leader — the qualities that Biden has been selling himself on since the day he launched his campaign.

“His experience and persona are made for this moment. People watch him and hear him and think, ‘It would be nice if he was president,’” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was deputy campaign manager to Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The downside is people are not paying attention.”

Getting them to tune in requires the kind of agile media- and tech-savvy campaign infrastructure Biden is scrambling to build. Democrats are urging him to move fast.

“He is going to have to change quickly,” said Shomik Dutta, a veteran of Barack Obama’s two campaigns and partner at Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for progressive political technology. “Joe Biden now has to wheel 180 degrees and prosecute a very different campaign than the one he was running.”

The coronavirus crisis engulfed the campaign just as, over a breathtakingly short amount of time, Biden all but sewed up the Democratic nomination on a shoestring budget — besting rival Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday and beyond even in states where he had never campaigned, had no staff and was vastly outspent. Although Sanders remains in the race, Biden is so far ahead that he has already shifted to a general election posture.

But now, the candidate is no longer able to get cash by holding living room fundraisers, forcing him to rely far more heavily on online donors. The traditional central-command-focused campaign Biden has run, Dutta said, will have to give way to one that relies heavily on decentralized clusters of digital-savvy volunteers. Biden needs to find a way to virtually convey the town hall and rope-line empathy and compassion that is such a draw for voters.

“He has to find formats that let him showcase those strengths that are not straightforward,” Dutta said. “He can’t just yell in front of a fireplace for two hours the way Bernie can.” Dutta suggested the campaign might find online influencers who can draw out the qualities of Biden that attract voters.

“It would be an interesting place to start experimenting,” he said. “In times of fear, people go for a brand name and something they know. He has a unique strength here. He is known for being stable, known for being empathetic, known for being deeply competent at what he does. There is a hunger for that.”

The former vice president’s supporters are conflicted on how much Americans need to see Joe Biden at this very moment, when voters are processing a shutdown economy, overwhelmed hospitals and sealed international borders. As donors and advisors implore Biden to get in front of more cameras and be a bigger presence, the risks of appearing opportunistic run high.

“The public probably for another few weeks is not going to be focusing on a presidential race,” said John Garamendi, a Democratic congressman from the San Joaquin Valley who has endorsed Biden. “The time will come when the campaign will resume.”

Biden was plainly juggling the pressure to call Trump out for false statements and his fear of being seen as too partisan in a national emergency in his appearance Tuesday on “The View.”

“I think there’s truth to both sides. That’s why, if you notice what I’ve been doing, I’ve not been criticizing the president, but I’ve been pointing out where there’s disagreement as to how to proceed,” Biden said. “The coronavirus is not his fault, but the lack of speed with which to respond to it — it has to move much faster … as I pointed out, this is not about Democrat or Republican.”

But in his CNN interview later in the day, Biden bluntly scolded Trump for talking about allowing businesses to reopen by Easter. “He says he’s a wartime president,” Biden said. “Well, God, act like one.”

However he handles this awkward interregnum publicly, many Democrats are hoping that Biden uses this time well to ramp up his campaign operation so it will be ready when the battle resumes in full force.

“He has 12 people working on his digital platform,” said Michael Meehan, who also advised the Kerry campaign. “He needs 1,200.… It is hard to knock off an incumbent in times of trouble. You don’t win presidential campaigns in the spring, but you can lose them there if you don’t prepare right.”

On Tuesday morning, a new Monmouth University poll showed Biden’s lead over Trump in a fall matchup had shrunk to a scant 3 points, putting it inside the margin of error. While the poll showed Biden performing better in some crucial swing states, the news was unnerving to Democrats, yet not completely unexpected as voters put stock in the federal government to get the nation through this crisis.

“We all hope and pray this is a short-lived moment and society can get back to work,” Schale said. “Anybody who is a human wants this.”

A key challenge for Biden, he said, is getting voters to focus not just on the immediate crisis of a dire shortage of hospital beds and a plunging stock market, but also how to pick up the pieces when the acute emergency passes.

“There is still going to be a choice in seven months,” Schale said. “The vice president will do his best to define that choice. How are we going to get out of this? What will the world look like going forward?”

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Opinion | Where’s Joe? What Biden Could Learn from Reagan about Running in a Crisis

Carter diagnosed the problem, but had no solution to it. Reagan had to walk a fine line between criticizing the president and not appearing to politicize a national crisis. By putting together an artful campaign that presented his positive qualities as the embodiment of the hope the nation was looking for, he was able to convince voters that he had the solution.

Rallying Around the President in a Time of Crisis

The hostage crisis began in 1979, when a group of Iranian college students took over the American embassy in Tehran and seized 52 American citizens. The act was their reprisal for the U.S. having allowed the deposed shah of Iran to enter the United States and receive treatment here for his cancer, whereas they wanted him to stand trial in Iran for the abuses of his secret police. The hostages were held for 444 days, eventually being released on the very day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, leading to split screen newsreels showing both events. (Recently released archival evidence suggests that a Republican political operative helped to bring the ailing shah to the United States, and also worked to delay the release of the hostages to deny Carter the electoral advantage of being able to bring the issue to closure. But there is as of yet no evidence that Reagan or any of his close advisers participated in or even knew about these efforts.)

In the early months of the crisis the public rallied around Carter. A poll in January found Carter leading Reagan 59 percent to 36 percent, and he was ahead among all groups — urban voters, suburban voters, rural and small town voters, men and women, conservatives, moderates, and liberals. One pro-Reagan letter writer fretted, “If Carter can keep the embassy hostages alive to the November 1980 election, he can win the nomination and election by default… Carter’s inept and fateful blunder caused the Iranian crisis but he is the only party reveling politically in the aftermath.” The crisis squeezed Senator Ted Kennedy, who was running against Carter in the primary, off the stage in the way Biden is being squeezed off today. Reagan made a (short-lived) vow not to criticize Carter.

But as the months dragged on, the public became more hostile to Carter. Even before a rescue effort in April ended in disaster, with eight American military personnel killed, Americans were starting to say that the president had failed. All of the Republican candidates for president were again criticizing Carter, and Kennedy was again making trouble in the primary. Reagan and his advisers seized the opening, but they did so not by directly criticizing the rescue effort. Instead, Reagan called the failed mission “a symptom of a broader crisis we face. America’s credibility, leadership and strength are not only being questioned by our friends, but increasingly are being tested by our adversaries… It is against this historic backdrop that we now enter one of the most dangerous decades of Western civilization.” By summer, Carter’s approval ratings had tanked, and Reagan could focus less on the Iran crisis and more on the economy and rising concerns about inflation — less dangerous political ground on which he could freely criticize the president.

Reagan’s campaign wasn’t perfect, as shown by the on-again off-again decision not to criticize the president. But overall, Reagan danced a fine dance of criticizing Carter without seeming to politicize the issue until events lessened the urgent need to focus on it.

Biden Should Bide His Time

While the historical circumstances and the specific details are different, there are nevertheless some important lessons for Biden from these events:

Wait. This is a dangerous moment for Joe Biden. His team is suggesting that he will present shadow briefings to criticize Trump’s efforts. But these briefings could backfire spectacularly: they could come across as petty and political, and they could become the target of criticism if Biden’s plans start generating attention and debate. Even worse, they could actually create confusion, by presenting the specter of competing centers of power and information. If the reaction to the first briefing is any indication, they will mostly be ignored. Reagan’s vow not to criticize Carter did not actually last very long, and he had started to criticize the incumbent even before the failed rescue effort in April. But he did not seek to be the lead critic of the president’s effort, and he even stressed areas where he supported the president—for example, saying even after the failed rescue effort that he had supported it, but thought it came too late. Biden similarly needs to let the president lead. If Trump is the bungling and irresponsible caricature that his opponents think he is, events will show it soon enough.

Avoid becoming the target of criticism. Another reason for waiting is to avoid diverting criticism away from the president. A memo from Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, from just before Reagan’s debate with Carter noted this issue: “If the Governor [Reagan] succeeds Tuesday in making Jimmy Carter’s record the major issue of the debate and the campaign, we will succeed in the debate and win the general election. If, however, Carter makes Ronald Reagan the issue of the debate and the campaign, we will lose both.” The adviser Ed Meese told Wirthlin what he had heard about the Carter campaign’s own strategy: “They have stated that ‘if Jimmy Carter is the issue, we lose, but if RR becomes the issue, we will win.’” Let Trump create the record that will be evaluated by voters in November; there’s no need to jump in now and make himself a target for others to criticize.

Connect the dots. While waiting for the moment for politics, build the narrative. Try to do what Reagan did when he connected the bungled response to the hostage crisis with a general weakening of America. Americans today are not gripped by the same fears as in 1980, but they are frightened by the social and political polarization of the country, a consequence of increasing economic inequality and ethnic and racial divisions. Those divisions are inflamed by this president. Every aspect of his response, from the decision years ago to disband the pandemic unit to the explicit decision to pander to xenophobia in the middle of the pandemic, reminds voters who Trump is and what he stands for. After several months of this, the country may well be desperate for a figure promising experience, competence, and unity. Biden has to be ready with the story of how the virus and the response to it are symptoms of Trump’s broader politics, and he has to be ready to provide his alternative vision for the nation.

Draw a contrast with the incumbent that is rooted in the challenger’s personality and resonates with the broader vision. Reagan was able to project resolve, the main thing Americans were looking for. For example, when asked how he would deal with the crisis, Reagan said “the time has long passed when we should have set a date certain for their release.” (His main primary opponent, George H.W. Bush, did not project resolve, instead saying: “I have been supporting the President [Carter] because I have not been able to come up with a quick fix for the situation.”) Voters responded to these displays of resolution as a welcome contrast to the ineffectual White House, and they saw in them the promise of hope for better outcomes. Joe Biden’s great strength is the sense of everyone who interacts with him that he is fundamentally decent. Even disgruntled former aides can do no worse than complain that he doesn’t like fundraising. The challenge for the campaign is how to tell a story about his decency that lines up with the promise to make life better for Americans. The bet that many Trump supporters have made is that an indecent person can nevertheless make good policies. Biden has to be ready to prove this equation wrong.

All of these considerations suggest that the only things Joe Biden should do right now are things that can actually help the crisis response. Biden is powerless to invoke the Defense Production Act or build medical surge capacity. But there are things that a well-connected and trusted politician can do even from the middle of self-isolation, such as speaking to communities and populations who distrust Trump and providing a platform to people with good ideas about what to do next. Biden doesn’t have to go into hiding, but neither does he have to become the chief critic of Trump. The time for that will come later.

How he handles these issues—whether he brings creativity and experience to carve out a positive role for himself in this unprecedented situation — will be the first major test of Joseph Biden’s presidency, the one that will determine whether there is a Biden presidency.

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GOP Senators Fear Coronavirus Cash Will Make Americans Lazy

Some Republican lawmakers have a big problem with the Senate’s emergency coronavirus legislation, which improves unemployment benefits for millions of people being laid off during the pandemic: They think Americans won’t want to go back to work. 

“A massive drafting error in the current version of the coronavirus relief legislation could have devastating consequences: Unless this bill is fixed, there is a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work,” GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) said Wednesday in a statement, according to RawStory.

The four senators proposed adding an amendment that would limit unemployment benefits to 100% of a worker’s salary.

Graham said he believes “very few people would choose work over unemployment benefits that provided moderately more money.”

But as the senators worried about the terrible things that might happen if Americans had enough money to pay their bills and expenses, a reporter asked a question that suggested their concern was a bit out of touch.

“I don’t know how to ask this without sounding like I’m being a smartass, and I’m not,” the reporter said. “But do you understand how bad the optics are to have probably the wealthiest person in the Senate potentially holding up this bill for a couple hundred bucks for some of the poorest people in this country?”

The wealthy man in question ― Rick Scott, who is estimated to worth $255 million ― responded with a variation of Calvin Coolidge’s old line that “the business of America is business.”

“I want to make sure that our small businesses, all of our businesses, including our hospitals and nursing homes and everybody can make sure people want to come to work,” he said, adding that the new unemployment benefits are meant to supplement unemployment insurance already paid by the states.

Sasse jumped in and attempted to defend Scott, suggesting people were just jealous of his wealth.

“I get it. Everybody in the room ― everybody in the country ― wishes they had Rick Scott’s bank account,” he said.

Sasse then claimed the issue over the so-called “drafting error” was principled and not about rich politicians trying to keep lower-income Americans from getting funds to pay bills during a difficult time.

“If you go into any coffee shop in Nebraska … and you say, ‘Do we as a people think what America wants to do is say, “Let’s have the federal government build a program that says we want to incentivize severing people’s work relationships?”’ Hell no!” he said. 

You can see the complete interaction below.

But the GOP senators’ position that there was a “drafting error” is not true, CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju later explained. 

“This [agreement was] negotiated by Republican senators and the White House and Democratic senators, who believe that it is essentially necessary,” Raju said. “They don’t think that it would lead to layoffs. In fact, this is a temporary enhanced unemployment benefit for those that do lose their job.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

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Coronavirus Task Force update on COVID-19 response – watch live stream today

President Trump and members of the Coronavirus Task Force, charged with leading the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, are holding a briefing at the White House Wednesday night, as the coronavirus claims more lives in the U.S.

The White House and Senate leaders of both parties have agreed on a sweeping $2 trillion financial relief package to help American workers, businesses and the severely strained health care system survive the virus outbreak. But a handful of senators are voicing opposition to portions of the bill, and the timing of a vote is unclear, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber would pass the bill on Wednesday.

Also unclear is when the direct checks to Americans would actually reach American’s wallets — A senate Democratic aide confirmed to CBS News that Americans could wait as long as four months for relief if they don’t have their direct deposit information on file with the IRS. The IRS can only mail roughly 20 million checks per month. 


How to watch the Coronavirus Task Force briefing today


President Trump has said he wants to ease restrictions on businesses aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, to get the U.S. “opened up” again by Easter. But the president’s impatience with the widespread closures is up against an outbreak that’s still growing fast. The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the U.S. could become the new epicenter in the COVID-19 pandemic.

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‘That’s when all hell broke loose’: Coronavirus patients overwhelm US hospitals

The doctor, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity out of concern for his job, described a hospital that was woefully unprepared for an influx of Covid-19 patients that started roughly two weeks ago — which has already stretched the hospital’s resources thin and led to severely ill patients outnumbering ventilators.

“We don’t have the machines, we don’t have the beds,” the doctor said.

“To think that we’re in New York City and this is happening,” he added. “It’s like a third-world country type of scenario. It’s mind-blowing.”

At first, patients skewed toward the 70-plus age group, but in the past week or so there have been a number of patients younger than 50.

“I don’t think they understand the severity of this disease,” the doctor said of the younger patients.

“Two weeks ago, life was completely different.”

Increasing capacity

Public health experts, including US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, have warned the US could “become Italy,” where doctors in hospitals filled with Covid-19 patients have been forced to ration care and choose who gets a ventilator.

But the US may already be seeing the beginnings of this in some areas, marking a new stage of the nation’s outbreak.

“The reality is that what we’re seeing right now in our emergency rooms is dire,” said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

“Last week when I went to work, we talked about the one or two patients amongst the dozens of others that might have been a Covid or coronavirus patient,” Spencer told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Tuesday. “In my shift yesterday, nearly every single patient that I took care of was coronavirus, and many of them extremely severe. Many were put on breathing tubes. Many decompensated quite quickly.

“There is a very different air this week than there was last week.”

A New York hospital system is barring visitors, including partners, during childbirth due to coronavirus risk
Officials in New York state are pushing hospitals across the state to increase capacity. The state is home to more than 6% of the world’s confirmed cases so far — and roughly half of all US cases.

In New York City, plans are also underway to build emergency hospitals and backfill other hospitals with 1,000 beds in the Javits Center, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In addition, thousands of doctors and nurses, who are either retired or no longer see patients, have signed up as a “surge health care force,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

There are simultaneous effort to procure ventilators for the most severe patients. According to Cuomo, New York has procured 7,000 ventilators in addition to 4,000 already on hand, and the White House said Tuesday that the state would receive two shipments of 2,000 machines this week from the national stockpile. But the state needs 30,000, Cuomo said.

The Strategic National Stockpile said Wednesday that it held approximately 16,660 ventilators before the coronavirus response, and ventilators have been deployed over the past few days.

“An outbreak, a pandemic like this could overwhelm any system in the world,” warned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert. Without enough ventilators, “that’s when you’re going to have to make some very tough decisions.”

Cuomo also described the extreme measures hospitals are planning to take to increase their capacity for patients who need intensive care.

“We’re going so far as to trying an experimental procedure where we split the ventilator,” Cuomo said Tuesday. “We use one ventilator for two patients. It’s difficult to perform, it’s experimental, but at this point we have no alternative.”

‘Exceptionally chaotic’

It’s not just New York that’s feeling the pressure. Hospitals across the country are seeing a surge of patients, a shortage of personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns, and health care workers who feel that they, their families and their patients are being put at risk.

Several nurses around the country also spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, also fearing they could lose their jobs.

US on track to become next coronavirus epicenter, but there's time to reverse course, health official says

One ER nurse in Virginia described her hospital as “exceptionally chaotic,” with an emergency department where potential Covid-19 patients were sitting next to patients with other health conditions.

“You have an elderly couple that is having chest pain sitting right next to someone who has a cough and flu,” she said. “I think that’s extremely reckless.”

She said she hadn’t hugged her daughter since the outbreak started, for fear she may pass anything on to her.

Another nurse in Georgia said she was repeatedly denied testing, even as her own symptoms worsened over the course of a week. The nurse, who had cared for several patients who died of pneumonia but were never tested for Covid-19, was finally tested Tuesday — the same day she was admitted to the hospital and put in isolation.

“It was not until this morning that I could finally be tested,” she said as she gasped for breath between heavy coughs. “It is insane. And it’s infuriating. You feel you have to scream to even be heard.”

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, an ER nurse at Montefiore Medical Center and president of the New York State Nurses Association, said that “everybody is terrified” about becoming infected because many lack the proper protective gear, and many are being told to reuse the same mask between multiple patients.

Sheridan-Gonzalez said she fears not having enough ventilators or staff to take care of everyone, but it hasn’t “hit that level yet” at her hospital.

Doctor who survived Ebola details a harrowing day in the ER. Coronavirus scares him

Similarly, one New York City private hospital executive, who requested anonymity, told CNN that “many hospitals believe they are covered on ventilators. That doesn’t mean some are not.”

Still, the shortage of personal protective equipment continues to impact his and other hospitals.

For Sheridan-Gonzalez, the risk of becoming infected amid a shortage of masks and gowns is all too real.

“We feel an obligation to take care of our patients. Everybody does. But we don’t want to become sick and we also don’t want to become carriers,” she said. “In my own hospital — and I don’t think it’s unique — we have a nurse who is on a ventilator right now who contracted the virus.”

If the virus takes out health care workers, “it’s game over. It’s lights out,” Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, previously told CNN.

“If we have multiple frontline health care workers, ER physicians, nurses go down in this epidemic — a situation where you have colleagues taking care of colleagues in the intensive care unit — there’s nothing more destabilizing for the United States.”

Flattening the curve

The capacity of US health systems is at the core of the effort to “flatten the curve” — to spread out the number of infections over time through measures such as social distancing.

The goal: to prevent hospitals from seeing a massive spike of patients arriving around the same time.

Trump's hope for an Easter reopening clashes with coronavirus reality
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he wanted the nation “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” which is April 12 — a date that few health experts believe will be sufficient to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Earlier this month, Fauci said “it probably would be several weeks or maybe longer before we know whether we had an effect” on flattening the curve, and on Tuesday he emphasized the need to be “flexible” in the timeline Trump laid out.

“Obviously, no one is going to want to tone down things when you see things going on like in New York City,” Fauci said Tuesday.

Some in New York don’t foresee the outbreak abating anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said he expects to see peak numbers of patients in approximately 21 days, based on current projections.

“We’re really at the beginning of this outbreak,” said NewYork-Presbyterian’s Spencer. “And you can feel that. You can sense that. It’s palpable on the front lines in the emergency department.”

In a series of tweets early Tuesday, Spencer urged people to practice social distancing in order to save lives: “We were too late to stop this virus. Full stop. But we can slow it’s spread.

“Hospitals are nearing capacity. We are running out of ventilators,” he said. “Ambulance sirens don’t stop.”

CNN’s Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black, Ellie Kaufman, Kevin Liptak, Maegan Vazquez, Nick Valencia, Jim Acosta, Arman Azad, Kristen Holmes and Ben Tinker contributed to this report.

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U.S. Senate close to passing $2 trillion in coronavirus aid, timing of vote unclear

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators will vote on Wednesday on a $2 trillion bipartisan package of legislation to alleviate the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, hoping it will become law quickly.

Top aides to Republican President Donald Trump and senior Senate Republicans and Democrats said they had agreed on the unprecedented stimulus bill in the early hours of Wednesday after five days of marathon talks.

“Today the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said after the chamber convened at noon EDT (1600 GMT).

“This is not even a stimulus package,” he said. “It is emergency relief.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said his party was willing to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

“Help is on the way. Big help. Quick help,” he said on the Senate floor.

Trump is ready to sign the measure into law, the White House said, but it was unclear how quickly Congress could get the package to his desk. McConnell did not say what time the Senate would hold its vote, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is not expected to act before Thursday.

A potential roadblock emerged in the early afternoon, as several Republican senators said the bill needed to be changed so that it would not pay laid-off workers more money than they earned on the job, calling the language a “drafting error.”

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said at a news conference.

The massive bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of U.S. families.

It will also include $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

It would be the largest rescue package ever approved by Congress and the third such effort to be passed this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the $3.8 billion allocated to his state would not cover the tax revenue it stands to lose from reduced economic activity. His state accounts for roughly half of all U.S. cases.

“That is a drop in the bucket,” he said at a news conference.

The package aims to flood the U.S. economy with cash in a bid to stem the impact of a pandemic that has killed more than 810 people in the United States and infected more than 59,200.

The governors of at least 18 states, including New York, have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the pathogen’s spread, but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

Wall Street rose in choppy trading on Wednesday, building on the previous session’s gains, on hopes of quick congressional action.

The stimulus bill is expected to pass the Republican-led Senate easily, more so because Republican Senator Rand Paul, the only senator to vote against an earlier round of emergency virus funding, may be unable to vote after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

It also must pass the Democratic-led House of Representatives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who proposed a more far-reaching rescue package, did not say whether she would support the Senate version.

“We’ll see the bill and see how the Senate votes. So there’s no decision about timing until we see the bill,” she told reporters.

House members left Washington 10 days ago, but the lower chamber could quickly pass the bill without requiring them to return if all members agree to do so.

The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, told lawmakers that they would be notified 24 hours before any action.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) enters the Senate Chamber Floor after Congress agreed to a multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus package created in response to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 Coronavirus, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

If just one of the chamber’s 430 current members objects, that could require them to return to Washington to vote in person at a time when several members are self-quarantining. Any changes made by the House would also require Senate approval – leading to further delays.

The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, said he supported the bill and called for its quick passage.

Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Susan Cornwell and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis

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Biden says “we’ve had enough debates,” signaling he doesn’t want to face Sanders again

Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that he’s done with the Democratic primary debates, and that he would rather focus on responding to the coronavirus crisis. His announcement comes a day after Bernie Sanders’ campaign said he would participate in another debate if it’s held in April.

“My focus is just dealing with this crisis right now,” Biden said in a virtual press conference. “I haven’t thought about any more debates. I think we’ve had enough debates. I think we should get on with this.”

The Democratic National Committee planned 12 primary debates, and has held 11 so far. The final one is supposed to happen in April, but a date has not been set. The DNC did not comment on Biden’s remarks.

Sanders’ campaign said Tuesday that the Vermont senator would be at the twelfth debate if it’s held — signaling that Sanders plans to keep campaigning for the near future, even after a series of major losses to Biden. 

“Senator Sanders is still running for president,” Sanders’ campaign communications director Mike Casca said in a statement. “If there is a debate in April, he plans to be there.”

In the most recent debate earlier this month, Biden and Sanders faced off in Washington, D.C. with no in-person audience. They are now the only two candidates left in the Democratic race. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, both campaigns have shifted online, with the candidates holding virtual conferences and town halls and calling off on-the-ground canvassing. Coronavirus has also upended the primaries themselves, with several states postponing their votes. 

Biden has a commanding delegate lead over Sanders after a sweep of high-profile primary victories. According to the latest CBS News estimates, Biden has 1,120 delegates and Sanders has 831. Candidates need 1,991 delegates to lock in the nomination. 

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Coronavirus Live Updates : NPR

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro removes his mask to speak to journalists after a press conference on the coronavirus on Wednesday.

Andre Borges/AP


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Andre Borges/AP

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro removes his mask to speak to journalists after a press conference on the coronavirus on Wednesday.

Andre Borges/AP

There’s been a furious reaction in Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro demanded an end to lockdowns imposed in his country’s biggest cities in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Having played down the virus for days as “exaggerated,” the president doubled down Wednesday, labeling governors and mayors who have imposed restrictions as “criminals” who are “destroying Brazil.”

Bolsonaro’s position has brought him into direct conflict with a broad spectrum of medical professionals, scientists and regional leaders who have been appealing to Brazilians to remain indoors.

Governors and mayors have brought the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to a near-standstill, closing down non-essential businesses and most transport links. Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, has 2433 confirmed cases with 57 deaths.

“Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion,” Bolsonaro complained to journalists Wednesday, adding: “If we don’t get back to work, Brazil could depart from democratic normalcy.”

On Tuesday, he made an impassioned nationwide TV address in which he called the closures a “scorched earth policy” and declared that “jobs must be “protected.” He warned against hysteria and panic measures, and questioned the need for schools to shut down.

Bolsonaro also told the TV audience that the majority of people with the virus show no symptoms and that those at risk are over 60. Himself 65, the retired army captain declared he would have no reason to worry if he became infected because of his “history as an athlete.”

“I would feel nothing,” Bolsonaro said. “For me, it would be at most just a little flu.”

Brazilians in urban neighborhoods responded to the broadcast by angrily clattering pots and pans and shouting from their windows, a traditional form of political protest that has continued for eight consecutive nights. Social media were flooded with posts expressing amazement and dismay.

The governor of São Paulo state, João Doria, condemned Bolsonaro, describing his views as “absolutely mistaken” and “out of tune” with the policies pursued by Brazil’s health ministry.

The coronavirus is “not a little cold, it’s not a little flu,” said Doria, after holding an apparently acrimonious video conference call with the president Wednesday. “It’s a grave issue.”

He said there are about 7 million people over age 60 in his state, which includes the mega-city of São Paulo.

“Is it legitimate to abandon them?” he asked.

Among the slew of organizations condemning Bolsonaro’s words is Brazil’s National Council for Health, which said he is “putting at risk the lives of millions of people” and committing “a serious affront to the health and life of the population.”

As Bolsonaro faces the massive health and economic emergency posed by the coronavirus, he could also find himself fighting for political survival. Some lawmakers have been calling for his impeachment.

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Handful of GOP senators threaten to delay Senate coronavirus bill over unemployment payments

A handful of Republican senators on Wednesday threatened to delay the $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill over a proposed increase to unemployment insurance.

In a statement, Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said that the bill could provide a “strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work” because some people could theoretically make more by being unemployed.

“This isn’t an abstract, philosophical point — it’s an immediate, real-world problem,” they continued. “If the federal government accidentally incentivizes layoffs, we risk life-threatening shortages in sectors where doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are trying to care for the sick, and where growers and grocers, truckers and cooks are trying to get food to families’ tables.”

They added, “We must sadly oppose the fast-tracking of this bill until this text is addressed, or the Department of Labor issues regulatory guidance that no American would earn more by not working than by working.”

The final details of the bill have yet to be released but Senate negotiators came to an agreement overnight that includes an additional $600 per week payment to each recipient of unemployment insurance. The benefit also extends to those who typically do not qualify, such as gig economy workers, furloughed employees and freelancers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the boost “ensures that laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months.”

Senators are expected to vote on the bill later Wednesday. The senators could hold up the bill to force votes on amendments.

At a press conference Wednesday, Graham, Scott, Sasse and fellow GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said they hoped an amendment could be passed that would limit unemployment benefits to 100 percent of a worker’s salary.

“We’ll know in about an hour whether this is a drafting error,” Graham said, adding that he’s afraid it is not and that very few people would choose work over unemployment benefits that provided moderately more money.

“Our goal is to help this bill get to the finish line,” Scott of South Carolina said, adding that while he supports the bill, “We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than they do in employment.”

A Democratic Senate Finance Committee aide said Tuesday a uniform payment was necessary to avoid bogging down states to deliver individualized benefits. A Republican aide on the Senate Finance Committee said Wednesday the policy stands and the text of the bill is unlikely to change.

“Nothing in this bill incentivizes businesses to lay off employees, in fact it’s just the opposite,” A Republican spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee said. “The goal all along has been, first and foremost, to help businesses make payroll so employers don’t have to lay off employees, and to ensure that there’s a robust unemployment insurance program to help those who have lost their jobs.”

“Each state has a different UI program, so the drafters opted for a temporary across-the-board UI boost of $600 dollars, which can deliver needed aid in a timely manner rather than burning time to create a different administrative regime for each state,” the spokesperson continued. “This increase is designed to make the average worker whole. It’s also important to remember that nobody who voluntarily leaves an available job is eligible for UI.”

The effort received swift pushback from progressive lawmakers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted that “unless” the GOP senators ” drop their objections to the coronavirus legislation, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund.”

“Let’s not over-complicate this,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted. “Several Republican Senators are holding up the bipartisan Coronavirus emergency bill because they think the bill is too good for laid off Americans.”

“Republicans right now are holding up COVID relief package because the unemployment insurance is TOO GENEROUS,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted. “I’ve heard zero business leaders or workers ask me to not make too much money available. My advice is: Ask anyone in your home state. They will tell you to pass the bill.”

MSNBC’s Garrett Haake asked Scott of Florida, one of the Senate’s wealthiest members, if he understood the optics problem of having one of the richest lawmakers holding up the massive stimulus package over a moderate financial gain for less wealthy Americans who find themselves out of work.

“I want to make sure that all of our businesses … can make sure people want to come to work,” he said.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.