Senators Race to Reach Bipartisan Agreement on Economic Rescue Plan

WASHINGTON — Senators and White House officials began negotiations on Friday to bridge considerable differences over a sweeping $1 trillion economic stabilization plan to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, pressing for a swift agreement that would allow it to be enacted in days.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said he hoped to strike a deal in principle by midnight on Friday, an ambitious goal given the wide divergence between the two parties over how to structure a government rescue package unlike anything Congress has contemplated.

While there is widespread agreement on the need for the package, Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided over the details, including which Americans should receive direct payments from the government, how much paid leave employers should have to cover for workers and who is eligible, and what form of assistance to provide to small and large businesses.

“The nation’s needs and expectations are perfectly clear,” Mr. McConnell said Friday morning on the Senate floor. “Workers, families, small businesses and the foundations of our economy itself need swift action and in the Senate, swift means bipartisan.”

Mr. McConnell introduced a bill on Thursday that would send checks of up to $1,200 to taxpayers who earn up to $99,000; deliver large corporate tax cuts; and put into place loans for businesses and industries and curbs on an emergency coronavirus paid leave program enacted this week. But elements of that package are facing opposition from Democrats — and even some Republicans.

“Senator McConnell’s bill is not pro-worker at all — it puts corporations ahead of people,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader. “Democrats have a good plan that puts people and workers first.”

Mr. Schumer spoke twice by phone with President Trump on Friday to discuss the details of the package, including Senate Democrats’ idea for what they are calling a “Marshall Plan” to send substantial federal funds to small and rural hospitals, increasing unemployment insurance and expanding paid leave.

At the White House shortly after, Mr. Trump appeared optimistic about the prospects for a quick agreement, saying, “We’re not so far away, we’re not very far away.”

On Capitol Hill, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer met with more than a dozen top Democratic and Republican senators, as well as administration officials, led by Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser. In a cavernous hearing room across from the Capitol, they sat at long tables several feet apart from one another, in line with public health guidelines that advise social distancing to curb the spread of the virus. At least one negotiator, Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, went a step further and joined by phone.

Afterward, the senators divided into smaller bipartisan groups to hash out disagreements over specific subjects. To have a vote on the Senate floor by Monday, Mr. McConnell would have to begin clearing procedural hurdles on Saturday as the text of an agreement is finished.

“We’re very comfortable with this goal,” said Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, who attended the meeting. “The need for urgency has been pressed repeatedly by the president and the secretary, and we’re going to work very hard to be incredibly nimble, quite quick, so that we’re in a position for results and relief to be delivered to the American people as fast as possible.”

Any legislation needs to win the approval of Democrats in both chambers to be signed into law, and Mr. Mnuchin spoke with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Mr. Schumer Friday afternoon by phone. Members of the House remain scattered across the country in their districts, on a recess that is likely to be indefinite until they take up the economic relief package.

Mr. Schumer said the process “is not one that I would have chosen,” but added, “we must make it work, and we will.”

The package under discussion Friday would be the third round of emergency aid Congress has considered this month to confront the coronavirus crisis. Lawmakers first approved $8.3 billion in emergency funding for government health agencies and then completed a second measure last week to provide paid leave, jobless aid and food and health care assistance. Mr. Trump has signed both bills into law.

Republicans’ proposal would offer bridge loans of up to $10 million each to small businesses, extend hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to large corporations in distressed industries and send checks as large as $1,200 per adult to individuals earning less than $99,000 a year. The payments would phase in for earners up to $75,000 — meaning lower earners would get smaller checks — and then phase out again at $99,000. Those who did not earn enough to pay income tax would receive much less, $600.

Republicans are divided over the direct payment program, with some saying it should be targeted toward getting the most money toward the lowest earners — not the other way around. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a close ally of Mr. Trump, has said distributing the money through unemployment insurance would be more practical.

Democrats are vehemently opposed to a provision in the Republicans’ bill that would curtail a paid leave program signed into law this week as part of the second emergency coronavirus relief package.

Lawmakers are racing to complete the package as pressure builds for them to shut the Capitol and leave Washington after two members of the House tested positive for Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. House leaders have reluctantly begun to consider the possibility of instituting remote voting, to adhere to federal guidelines to avoid travel and congregating in large groups.

But lawmakers in both chambers have acknowledged that the huge economic stabilization measure — which they are calling Phase 3 — is unlikely to be the last legislation Congress must consider to respond to the pandemic.

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