Agreement near with White House on virus aid, says Pelosi

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she and the Trump administration are close to agreement on a COVID-19 aid package to reassure anxious Americans by providing sick pay, free testing and other resources, hoping to calm teetering financial markets amid the mounting crisis.

Final details were being worked out, but the top United States (US) House Democrat, who held daylong talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The House could then swiftly vote.

“We have — are near — to an agreement,” Pelosi said, emerging from her office at the Capitol on Thursday.

The potential deal between Congress and the White House would cap a tumultuous week in which Washington strained for a comprehensive response to the outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health care systems.

It builds on an emergency USD8.3 billion package approved last week and is aimed at providing additional health and financial resources to arrest the sudden spread of the pandemic and the kind of economic fallout unseen in a generation. Pelosi promised in a letter to colleagues that a third package was yet to come.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi followed by reporters at Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AP

The new sick leave benefit would require businesses to provide up to 14 days of paid leave to workers who are home quarantined with the virus, with the federal government reimbursing them through tax credits.

The bill enhances unemployment benefits for the jobless and boosts food and nutrition programs for working families, students and seniors.

The late announcement was intended to boost confidence, Democrats said.

“We felt that putting together something that the American people can see cooperation on between the two parties in this difficult moment would be a confidence builder,” said Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Representative Richard Neal joining Pelosi at the Capitol, “and I think that we approached it that way.”

Meanwhile, 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, President Donald Trump’s chief rival, criticised him for playing down the threat for weeks and promised if he becomes President to “always tell you the truth”.

Amid a wave of closures and cancellations, the COVID-19 question got personal for Trump and some members of Congress.

Just days after meeting Trump and Senator Rick Scott, the Communications Chief for Brazil’s President Fábio Wajngarten tested positive for the COVID-19. 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.”

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said, “The White House is aware of public reports that a member of the Brazilian delegation’s visit to Mar-a-Lago last weekend tested positive for COVID-19” though; confirmatory testing is pending.

She said, “Both the President and Vice President had almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time.” GOP Senator 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.

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 paycheques 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 also proposed swift federal intervention and money to help people suffering in their health or finances.

As talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin continued, lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm after what they called heated and testy briefings with Infectious Disease Chief at the National Institutes of Health Dr Anthony Fauci and other public health officials.

Lawmakers were particularly frustrated that US officials have tested relatively few patients.

“We’re basically, in my opinion, flying blind,” said Representative Susie Lee.