Federal officials reach deal on $2 trillion aid package

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The White House and Senate leaders of both parties have struck an agreement on a sweeping $2 trillion measure to aid workers, businesses and a health care system strained by the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight.

The agreement came after days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure and still needs to be finalized in detailed legislative language.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are done. We have a deal,” Ueland said.

The unprecedented economic rescue package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

Unprecedented legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses, workers and a health care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic remained snagged on Capitol Hill Tuesday night, despite predictions by negotiators that a deal was at hand.

After days of pressure, unusual partisanship in a crisis, and intense haggling over the fine print, negotiators were almost done with a $2 trillion bill to respond to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called "the most serous threat to Americans' health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America's jobs and prosperity that we've seen since the Great Depression.” The final details proved nettlesome as Trump administration officials continued negotiations deep into the night.

Yet even as the public-health crisis deepened, President Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.

“We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought,” Trump told a Fox News town hall. He said he'd like to have the country “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, April 12. But in a White House briefing later, Trump said "our decision will be based on hard facts and data.”

Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections. At the White House briefing, the public-health authorities said it was particularly important for people in the hard-hit New York City metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and for those who have recently left the city to do the same.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said pointedly at the briefing, “No one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations after a tumultuous but productive day Monday. While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote appeared likely Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.

“We're trying to finalize all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we're making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said.

Ravaged in recent days, stocks rocketed as negotiators signaled a resolution was in sight.

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

A one-time payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child would go directly to the public.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salary of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time. Companies would be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

Opening the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell combined optimism about the chances for a deal with frustration at the delays — and a sober view of the crisis at hand.

“The urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone,” he said. On the negotiations, he said, “It's taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here.” Still, "we are very close. We are close to a bill that takes our bold Republican framework, integrates further ideas from both parties, and delivers huge progress.”

Earlier Tuesday, Trump urged swift action. “Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today," he tweeted. “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy.”

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Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund, and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bank rescue, officials said.

The sense of optimism extended to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who told CNBC, "I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours.” Only Monday, Pelosi introduced a massive Democratic measure with liberal priorities, drawing scorn from Republicans.

Trump in recent days has sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus' march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy.

Even though Trump's administration recommended Americans curtail activities for 15 days, starting just over a week ago, the president saids he may soon allow parts of the economy, in regions so far less badly hit by the virus, to begin reopening.

He continued on that theme Tuesday as he weighed a relaxation of social distancing guidelines after the 15-day period is up. His suggestion that the pandemic could ease and allow a return to normalcy in a mere few weeks is not supported by public health officials or many others in government.

On Tuesday, top defense and military leaders warned department personnel that the virus problems could extend for eight to 10 weeks, or longer. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Defense Department town hall meeting that the crisis could even extend into July.

The emerging rescue package is larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

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 from the new virus. 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 recover.

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Trump Administration considering opening Obamacare enrollment amid pandemic

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The Trump administration is considering opening up a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act to help uninsured Americans during the coronavirus crisis, Politico and The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

At least nine states that run their own health insurance exchanges have already reopened Obamacare enrollment to uninsured residents so they can obtain coverage now, according to the Journal.

But most states depend on the insurance marketplace run by the federal government. Open enrollment for states that use the federal exchange ended on Dec. 15. But a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the Trump administration insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov, said officials are now considering a new enrollment period.

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CMS is evaluating offering a Special Enrollment Period specifically designated for COVID-19,” she told the Journal. “We will continue to work with states and health plans around the country to assess what additional actions are necessary to ensure the American people have coverage for and access to the services they need during this time.”

The representative also encouraged people to check the HealthCare.gov site now to determine if they may already be able to enroll because of a change in circumstances, such as losing a job.

About 30 million people are currently uninsured, and that number is likely to skyrocket as businesses shut down.

Insurance lobby organizations America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association urged lawmakers in a letter Thursday to include insurance plan subsidies in upcoming coronavirus stimulus packages. It also encouraged a “one-time special enrollment period for the individual market — regardless of an individual’s current health status or whether they have coverage today.”

The letter added: “Given the risk posed by COVID-19, it is more important than ever for people to have health coverage. This will give people the opportunity to get the security and peace of mind that health care coverage provides.”

Ironically, GOP officials in 20 states — with the backing Donald Trump — are currently fighting in court to kill Obamacare. The Supreme Court will hear the case, likely next term.

The Affordable Care Act was passed ten years ago.

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At Least 2 GOP Senators Dumped Millions In Stock After Coronavirus Briefings

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Sens. Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler reportedly made dozens of stock trades shortly after private health briefings for Congress began in January.

At least two Republican senators sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in stock shortly after Congress began receiving regular briefings about the outbreak of coronavirus spreading around the globe, according to several reports and reviews of financial disclosures.

ProPublica first reported Thursday that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, offloaded between $628,000 and $1.72 million worth of holdings in 33 transactions on Feb. 13, shortly after he publicly assured Americans the government was prepared to deal with the novel coronavirus that has since been declared a pandemic. A week after the sales, the stock market began to precipitously fall, erasing about 30% of its value.

Just hours later, the Daily Beast first reported that Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) began selling stocks jointly owned with her husband on Jan. 24, the day the Senate Health Committee held a private, all-chamber briefing from top American officials about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. In a series of 29 transactions ending in mid-February, documented in Senate financial disclosures, Loeffler and her husband sold between $1,275,000 and $3,100,000 in stock.

The Georgia senator also made two purchases, including one in a company that owns teleworking software, the Beast noted. Loeffler’s husband is Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. The pair are worth an estimated $500 million.

Two other senators made major stock sales around the same time: Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Feinstein’s office told The New York Times the lawmaker’s assets are held in a blind trust and she has “no involvement” in the sales.

Selling stock before a market crash can insulate stockholders from any potential losses. It’s against the law for lawmakers to use non-public information to influence financial decisions.

Burr’s office has pushed back against ProPublica’s reporting — which is also based on public financial disclosures required by law ― saying the forms were filed “several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak.”

“As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy,” an aide said in a statement Thursday.

Early Friday, Loeffler called reports about the sales a “ridiculous and baseless attack”: 

“Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement,” she added in a post on Twitter. “As confirmed in the periodic transaction report to Senate Ethics, I was informed of these purchases and sales on February 16, 2020 — three weeks after they were made.”

On Feb. 28, Loeffler moved to downplay the health and financial threat the spread of the virus posed to America, writing that Democrats had “dangerously and intentionally misled the American people” about the country’s preparedness for the outbreak.

“Here’s the truth: @realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe,” she wrote at the time.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate in December by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill a vacated seat. She is up for reelection later this year.

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