Coronavirus: $2tn coronavirus bill held up by US Senate snag

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A last-minute row is delaying a vote in Congress on a $2tn (£1.7tn) coronavirus relief bill that would be the largest economic stimulus in US history.

Republican and Democratic senators have been arguing over jobless benefits in the titanic spending legislation.

The plan includes direct payments of $1,200 to most American adults and aid to help small businesses pay workers.

The US has recorded approaching 1,000 coronavirus deaths and about 66,000 confirmed infections.

More than 21,000 people with coronavirus have died across the planet since it emerged in China’s Wuhan province in December, while the number of infections races towards half a million.

Southern Europe is now at the centre of the pandemic, with Italy and Spain recording hundreds of new deaths every day.

What’s the snag in Congress?

President Donald Trump, a Republican, said on Wednesday he would sign the bill as soon as it reached his desk.

But Republican senators Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham said the bill’s major expansion of jobless benefits provided “a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work”.

They said they would oppose the bill unless it was fixed to ensure workers could not have a higher income while unemployed than in a job.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he would oppose the bill unless the Republicans dropped their objections.

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Media captionJulie Davis, a full-time ride-share driver in Seattle, chronicles the struggle she is facing

He also demanded tougher conditions on the legislation’s “corporate welfare”.

The bill does have cross-party support, but it must still be voted through the Senate and House of Representatives before the president signs it into law.

Despite the eleventh-hour dispute, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at the White House on Wednesday: “Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow.”

Both Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had agreed on the bill.

What do we know about the deal?

The agreement announced by Democratic and Republican Senate leaders in the early hours of Wednesday includes tax rebates, loans, money for hospitals and rescue packages.

Though the nearly 900-page bill’s price tag amounts to roughly half the size of the US government’s annual budget, little has emerged of its finer details.

Individuals who earn $75,000 or less would get direct payments of $1,200 each. Married couples with household income of up to $150,000 would receive $2,400 and an additional $500 per each child.

Mr McConnell described the package as a “wartime level of investment” in the US nation.

The Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said she hoped the bill could be passed by voice vote.

That would allow members of Congress – several of whom have coronavirus or are self-isolating – to stay away from the chamber in order to cast their votes.

But if any member objected, lawmakers would be asked to return to Washington and vote over the course of an entire day, in order to limit how many people are present on the House floor at one time.

What’s the latest from the virus hotspot of New York?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday it is likely half of America’s most populous city of more than eight million would catch coronavirus by the time the pandemic runs its course.

By Wednesday morning, 199 New Yorkers had died from the disease and confirmed cases had reached 17,856.

According to the New York Times, 13 patients died in a matter of hours on Tuesday at a hospital in the Queens borough of the city, with a young doctor there describing “apocalyptic” scenes.

But there were signs of hope.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke on Wednesday of tentative indications that the spread of the disease may be slowing.

On Sunday, hospital admissions were doubling every two days. But by Monday that rate had fallen to every 3.4 days, and on Tuesday every 4.7 days, Mr Cuomo said.

The whole of New York state had 285 coronavirus deaths and more than 30,800 patients as of Wednesday morning – about half of the total US caseload.

What is the situation elsewhere in the US?

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency said New York, North Carolina and Hawaii had requested special mortuary teams to be ready for mass casualties.

New Orleans, Louisiana, where crowds celebrated Mardi Gras last month, has recorded the world’s highest growth rate in coronavirus cases.

On Thursday, the governors of Minnesota and Idaho issued state-wide “stay at home” orders, joining at least 17 other states, including New York, California and Texas.

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom said one million Californians had registered as unemployed just this month.

The US is more than midway through a 15-day attempt to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing.

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