Washington Aims to Address Coronavirus Pandemic

Across the country, organizations are reacting to the novel coronavirus by cancelling meetings and events. From basketball tournaments to parades and school classes, people are staying home to reduce potential exposure to the virus.

For this week at least, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., decided to keep coming in to work. The Senate was supposed to be in recess this week, but cancelled that break so senators could potentially vote on a bill aimed at responding to economic threats from the spreading disease.

Last week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill, the second passed in response to the threat from the virus. This measure initially passed 363-40. It had to be amended slightly on Monday. The Wall Street Journal reports: “The new measure would still provide two weeks of sick leave to a wide swath of workers affected by the pandemic, including those who are in quarantine, caring for family members with Covid-19, and those who have children whose schools or day-care centers have closed.” The bill would also make free testing for the coronavirus available.

On Friday, President Donald Trump announced support for the House bill, then declared a national emergency to make $50 billion in federal aid available to states and local governments. Over the weekend, the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to zero to help make more money available and boost the economy.

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, had been pushing for a payroll tax holiday, which would allow employees to keep more money from their paychecks. However, that did not garner widespread support on the Hill, and Trump and Mnuchin held a press conference on Tuesday stating that they would propose measures to the Senate to get money into the hands of workers more quickly than through payroll deductions. 

Expect quick action on a third bill reflecting the latest administration efforts to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. “I think the assumption’s going to be that we’re going to do something, it should be big. Because we can’t assume that we’re just going to keep coming back,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Washington Post.

As with everyone else, senators may soon have difficulty traveling. The Trump proposal seeks some $850 billion in stimulus. Even if passed by the Senate this week, it would still need to be passed by the House, which is in recess.   

Earlier this month, the president signed an emergency spending package, making some $8.3 billion in funding available to fight the virus. “The package includes more than $3 billion for research and the development of vaccines and $2.2 billion that will help in prevention, preparedness and response. It also allocates $1 billion for state and local response, about half of which would go to specific cities,” USA Today reported.

But while Senate lawmakers remain at work this week, the rest of Capitol Hill is shutting down. “The Capitol banned public tours through March,” Politico reported last week. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Reps. Paul Gosar and Don Beyer, decided to self-quarantine after they were potentially exposed to the virus. Also, a staffer in Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell’s D.C. office tested positive for the virus, Politico reported.

Lawmakers expect to pass additional coronavirus measures in the weeks ahead. “We’ve resolved most of our differences and those we haven’t, we’ll continue the conversation because there will be other bills,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week.

As businesses and individuals hunker down this month, lawmakers say they’ll do what they can to provide medical help and economic relief from the coronavirus.

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