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Trump announces coronavirus actions as Democrats prep stimulus

The House is expected to vote on an economic package Thursday

President Donald Trump used a rare primetime address from the Oval Office to announce sweeping new restrictions on travel from Europe, while calling on Congress to pass economic stimulus legislation including his prized payroll tax cut.

The president said he’d use executive powers to “provide financial relief” for quarantined workers and those forced to stay home without pay to take care of ill family members or children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump also said he’d allow deferred tax payments for “certain individuals and businesses” in order to inject a temporary infusion of $200 billion into the economy, and also urged lawmakers to expand small business loan authority by an additional $50 billion.

“This is not a financial crisis,” Trump said, adding if Americans take precautions with their own hygiene, in concert with coordinated governmental action “the virus will not have a chance against us.”

The European travel ban will be in place for 30 days starting at midnight Friday. Trump said it would not apply to the United Kingdom, and that “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings” may be allowed to enter the United States.

Trump initially said the ban will also “apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo” coming from Europe to the U.S. But Trump later clarified by tweet that the rule would not apply to European imports, saying that “trade will in no way be affected” by the travel ban. “The restriction stops people not goods,” he wrote.

Trump said he’d be willing to ease the ban as conditions change in Europe, and that the administration might also “reevaluate the restrictions and warnings that are currently in place” with regard to China and South Korea.

House vote Thursday

Meanwhile, House Democrats offered up their own economic stimulus package Wednesday to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, rejecting Trump’s proposed payroll tax holiday in favor of more targeted direct aid to individuals and families.

The Democratic bill, expected to get a floor vote Thursday, would provide relief to those struggling from lost wages or other economic effects related to work stoppages and other adverse impacts from the novel coronavirus. The bill would, among other provisions, do the following:

  • Paid sick leave. Require employers to provide workers 14 days of paid leave for a “public health emergency,” including the coronavirus, while letting workers gradually accrue seven days of paid sick leave during normal times. Businesses with 50 or fewer workers would be reimbursed for the cost of emergency sick leave.
  • Unemployment insurance. Provide $1 billion this year to help states process and pay unemployment insurance benefits. For states that see an increase of at least 10 percent in their unemployment rate over the previous year, the bill would provide full federal funding for extended benefits of an additional 26 weeks, instead of requiring the state to fund half the cost.
  • Emergency leave benefit. Establish a new federal benefit for eligible workers, equal to two-thirds of their average monthly earnings, when workers must take 14 or more days of leave for coronavirus-related reasons and aren’t otherwise compensated.
  • Worker protection. Require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new rules aimed at protecting health care workers from infectious disease exposure.
  • Food assistance. Suspend work requirements for food stamp recipients and issue waivers to allow for the continuation of school lunch programs when schools are closed. It also would provide nearly $1.3 billion in additional appropriations for nutrition programs, includes $500 million for the Women, Infants and Children program and $400 million to help food banks serve low-income residents during an emergency.
  • Medical testing. Require that all private and public insurance programs cover the cost of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and associated doctor visits, with no cost-sharing. Many private insurers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have already said they would do this.
  • Medicaid money. States would get an extra 8 percent on top of what they normally receive from the federal government for Medicaid, for as long as COVID-19 is a public health emergency, and territories would each get several million dollars on top of their normal Medicaid allotments.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Republicans or the White House would be on board. House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he’ll reconvene his panel Thursday morning before House floor debate in order to give the administration time to review the measure.

“I’m not sure if this bill is one that my colleagues and I will support,” Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, told the Rules panel. Granger said she’d need to scrub the authorizing provisions to make sure “there are not any surprises.”

‘In the billions’

Earlier Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said he’d heard Trump would announce he’s planning to implement some of the measures in the House’s bill by executive order. “We’d probably still want to codify it,” said Hoyer, D-Md. “The president changes his mind very frequently.”

Hoyer said the cost of the measure “will be in the billions, but I don’t want to go beyond that.” Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said it was still being scored by the Congressional Budget Office but “I don’t think its hundreds of billions” of dollars.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced earlier Wednesday that the IRS would likely delay the April 15 tax filing deadline, giving individuals and some businesses —not the rich or large corporations, Mnuchin stressed — as much as $200 billion in temporary tax relief. Democrats in both chambers had urged the Trump administration to take that step as well, which he announced Wednesday night.

The House legislation was to serve as an opening bid by Democrats as negotiations proceed on a bipartisan economic stimulus package that may be harder to secure before Congress leaves town for a weeklong recess.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conferred with Mnuchin twice Wednesday after an initial discussion Tuesday in hopes of brokering a deal. She also spoke with Vice President Mike Pence and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, by phone Wednesday evening before Trump spoke.

Fauci has opposed the kind of travel restrictions Trump announced. He said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association last month that travel restrictions are a “folly” in the face of a pandemic, “because you can’t cut yourself off from the rest of the world.”

‘Like a wrecking ball’

Trump has pushed for the elimination or sharp reduction of the Social Security payroll tax through the end of the calendar year. That proposal, which could cost several hundred billion dollars, has won little support in Congress, even among Republicans.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, said the White House plan would “hit Social Security like a wrecking ball with a massive tax cut for the country’s biggest corporations. We are going to oppose this with everything we have.”

A number of the House provisions, including paid leave and nutrition assistance, have bipartisan support. It was possible but unclear whether the Senate could take up the bill after likely House passage Thursday.

Neal said there were areas of common ground with the administration on the stimulus measures in play.

“I have vetted some of these issues with Secretary Mnuchin and he seemed in accord with what I had to say,” Neal said. “Based on 24 hours ago I spoke to the secretary and I had I thought a pretty good conversation with him about all of these issues that are within the Ways and Means Committee, and he surely seemed supportive of the positions I had taken.”

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said earlier Wednesday that the timing and content of a stimulus package would be largely up to House Democrats and the Trump administration.

“It’s going to have to be negotiated between the White House and House leadership, so it depends a little bit on that. I think at this point those discussions have started, but it’s not going to come together overnight,” Thune said.

Jennifer Shutt, Andrew Siddons, Doug Sword and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

[Capitol comes under microscope even with new coronavirus guidelines]

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