WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Thursday that she and the Trump administration are close to agreement on a coronavirus aid package, as negotiators struggled to hammer out a deal to provide funding and resources for American workers, families and businesses reeling with health and financial problems from the crisis.
Final details are being worked out but Pelosi expected an announcement Friday. The House could swiftly vote.
“We have — are near — to an agreement,” Pelosi said, emerging from her office at the Capitol shortly before 9 p.m. after a long day of many crosstown phone calls with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin, whom was tapped by the White House to lead the talks.
The sudden announcement was aimed as a confidence booster, Democrats said, on an otherwise tumultuous day as Washington strained for a comprehensive response to the coronavirus outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health care systems.
As President Donald Trump restricted air travel from Europe, Congress struggled with the aid package and the seats of power closed down to visitors.
The centerpiece of Trump’s response, a month-long restriction on travel from most of Europe, was set to begin at midnight Friday night. Trump blamed Europe for not acting quickly enough, employing almost xenophobic terms to describe the “foreign virus” being ”seeded” by travelers.
Meantime the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court all declared themselves off limits to the public for now, symbols of a nation hunkering down.
Democrat Joe Biden, Trump’s chief rival for the White House, challenged him for playing down the threat for weeks and promised if he becomes president to “always tell you the truth.”
As closures, cancellations and fears confronted so many aspects of daily American life, the coronavirus question, for Trump and members of Congress, was becoming personal.
Just days after meeting Trump and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the communications chief for Brazil’s president, Fábio Wajngarten, tested positive for the coronavirus. A photo of the president, the senator and Wajngarten shows the trio shoulder-to-shoulder at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last weekend.
It was the first time someone infected with the virus was known to have been in close proximity to the president.
Scott said he was isolating himself. Trump, 73, said he was unworried.
“We had dinner in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with the entire delegation,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But we did nothing very unusual. We sat next to each other for a period of time.” Asked whether he should be tested, Trump replied, “I am not concerned.”
The White House did not respond to questions about the Bolsonaro news, including whether the president and his senior staff are being tested for the virus and whether any were considering self-quarantining. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was also at Trump’s club on the weekend, joined a growing list of lawmakers who have chosen to isolate themselves as a precaution. Most are doing so after interactions elsewhere.
The president also said Thursday that he was considering major restrictions, such as limiting travel to domestic hot spots like California and Washington state, without spelling out how he would manage such an extraordinary effort. The State Department issued a global health advisory cautioning U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel abroad” due to the virus and associated quarantines and restrictions.
So far, the administration’s haphazard response and the stalemate in Congress have resulted in more uncertainty as the crisis roils the financial markets and rewrites daily life for Americans.
Biden and Bernie Sanders, the other main contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, delivered their own speeches the day after Trump’s prime-time address to the nation.
Biden called for free virus testing, temporary pop-up hospitals and paid leave for all Americans to help cover paychecks as workers self-quarantine, care for the ill or lose jobs over the virus.
“No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks, but I can promise you this, when I’m president we will be better prepared, respond better and recover better,” Biden declared.
Sanders, speaking in Vermont, also sought swift federal intervention and money to help people suffering in their health or finances.
Congress was about to break for the week, leaving uncertain the hopes for swift passage of a multi-billion-dollar aid package that was compiled in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House but stalled by opposition from Republicans.
Trump said he would not support the measure “because there are things in there that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”
The bill would build on last week’s $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus measure and provide free testing, a new federal sick pay program, more unemployment insurance and food aid for workers and other Americans hit by the crisis. Although major insurers have agreed to provide diagnostic tests at no cost to their customers, about 28 million people have no insurance.
As talks continued, lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm after what they called heated and testy briefings with Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, and other public health officials. Lawmakers were particularly frustrated that U.S. officials have tested relatively few patients.
“We’re basically, in my opinion, flying blind,” said Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.
As classes, sports events, concerts and conferences are canceled across the nation, Trump said he would be halting his signature campaign rallies, telling reporters he needs a “little separation until such time as this goes away.” His rivals, Biden and Sanders, said they would no longer hold large political gatherings and their staffs would work from home as the race for the presidency moved online.
The three branches of government closed their doors to visitors — Congress shut the Capitol to the public until April, White House tours have been suspended and the Supreme Court will also turn back visitors.
The storied Smithsonian said it was canceling all public events and will temporarily close its network of museums and the National Zoo, starting Saturday. And Trump proposed postponing this summer’s Olympics in Japan for a year, too.
The financial markets endured another day of alarming slides and the Federal Reserve moved to try to ease the disruptions by announcing that it will sharply increase its purchases of short-term Treasury bonds.
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. 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 be over it.
While Trump said all European travel except from Britain would be cut off, there were clarifications and criticisms of the cornerstone of his attempt to curtail the crisis.
Homeland Security officials said the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area at any point in the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area encompasses most European countries, among them France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria and Belgium.
The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others identified in the proclamation signed by Trump. Vice President Mike Pence said the administration is also asking travelers returning to the U.S. from Europe to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days.
But some health officials, and even a former high-ranking Trump administration official, suggested that Trump’s European travel restriction was futile because the virus is already widespread on U.S. soil.
“In two weeks, we will regret wasting time and energy on travel restrictions and wish we focused more on hospital preparation and large scale community mitigation,” Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, tweeted Thursday.
Trump claimed falsely Thursday that the U.S. is currently screening all Americans and foreigners who are entering the country, saying, “people coming in have to be tested.” And he claimed that those who return are being forced to isolate themselves, adding: “It’s going to be a pretty strong enforcement of quarantine.” No widespread quarantine orders have been announced.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Lauran Neergaard, Martin Crutsinger, Laurie Kellman and Kevin Freking in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Get Boston.com’s e-mail alerts: