WASHINGTON, D.C. - Negotiators from Congress and the White House were resuming top-level talks Saturday on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, racing to strike a deal after President Donald Trump unleashed fury on those questioning his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
It was an extraordinary moment in Washington: Congress undertaking the most ambitious federal effort yet to shore up households and the U.S. economy and an angry president lashing out at all comers. All while the global pandemic and the nationwide shutdown grip an anxious, isolated population bracing for a healthcare crisis and looming recession.
Trump, during a briefing at the White House on Saturday, expressed optimism that the stimulus package could be agreed upon before long.
"They're all negotiating and everybody's working hard and they want to get to a solution that's the right solution, I think we're very close," said Trump, who continued to strike a confident tone about the nation's ability to defeat the pandemic soon.
"We are going to be celebrating a great victory in the not too distant future," he said.
On Capitol Hill, key congressional and White House officials converged Saturday for more talks. The sweeping aid package of paychecks for suddenly jobless Americans, money for hospitals and aid to industry is all but certain to swell far beyond the initial $1 trillion price tag. Combined with other actions by the Federal Reserve, it could be a $2 trillion pump to the economy, officials said Saturday.
The Senate was convening the rare weekend session with the aim of drafting the package Saturday, holding an initial vote Sunday and winning Senate passage on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday negotiators are making "important progress," but urged talks to wrap up.
"This is not a political opportunity, this is a national emergency," he said. "It's time to come together, finalize the results of our bipartisan discussions and close this out."
McConnell said he wants to pass the aid package "as quickly as humanly possible."
It was a sentiment shared by White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland. "We need to act with urgency, we need to act with significance, we need to act with boldness," he told reporters.
Despite the enormous pressure on Washington to swiftly act, the challenges are apparent. Lawmakers and administration officials labored late into the evening Friday over eye-popping sums and striking federal interventions, surpassing even the 2008-09 bank bailout and stimulus.
"Everybody is working very hard," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, exiting one closed-door session and heading into another.
Mnuchin began negotiations with McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and senators from both parties using McConnell's GOP offer as a starting point.. Pelosi late Friday called the GOP plan a "non-starter" but Schumer, the next morning, declared "We are making very good progress."
The GOP plan aims to pump billions into $1,200 direct checks to Americans and billions to small businesses to pay idled workers during the global pandemic.
But Democrats say McConnell's plan is insufficient, arguing for greater income support for workers and a "Marshall Plan" for the U.S. healthcare industry, which is preparing for an onslaught of newly sick patients.
At the White House, Trump welcomed the stimulus plan, believing it is needed to stabilize the economy. On Saturday, he opened the briefing with a roll call of his administration's accomplishments, a week-in-review meant to rebut criticism that the White House was moving too slowly to combat the crisis.
It came a day after he spent Friday's daily briefing in a fury, lashing out at reporters. When one reporter asked Trump what he would tell a worried nation, the president snapped, "I say that you're a terrible reporter."
At times, he seemed to refuse to want to hear the reality of an increasingly dire situation. It was when one reporter noted the hard facts in the U.S. -- that more than 200 are dead, more than 14,000 infected and millions scared -- that he snapped back.
Health officials on Saturday again warned Americans that the number of coronavirus cases would continue to increase in part as testing grew more widespread. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, promised that the administration's measures were slowing the spread even though they were not yet easily quantified.
Trump also sowed further confusion about whether he is using the powers of the Defense Production Act to force American businesses to manufacture needed medical supplies. He offered conflicting accounts of when he officially authorized it and did not provide any details to companies or products he was mobilizing.
The administration also announced a further closing of the nation's borders, as the U.S. and Mexico agreed to limit crossings to all but essential travel and trade, while the U.S. moved to restrict entry to anyone without documentation.
Later Friday, the White House said a member of Vice President Mike Pence's staff had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said the staff member, who is not being identified, did not have "close contact" with either the vice president or Trump.
Pence said Saturday that staffer was doing well and that, out of abundance of caution, the vice president and his wife Karen would be tested for the virus.
Unveiled Thursday, McConnell's rescue proposal from Republicans builds on Trump's request for Congress to "go big."
The GOP plan proposes $300 billion for small businesses to keep idled workers on payroll and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries. It also seeks to relax a just-enacted family and medical leave mandate on small to medium-sized businesses from an earlier rescue package.
It puts McConnell's imprint on the GOP approach after the Senate leader left earlier negotiations to Pelosi and Mnuchin, which angered some of his GOP senators feeling cut out of the final product.
Keeping paychecks flowing for workers not at work is a top priority for both Democrats and Republicans as jobless claims skyrocket. But how best to send direct payments to Americans -- as one-time stipends, ongoing payroll support or unemployment checks -- is a crucial debate.
Under McConnell's approach, small businesses with 500 or fewer employees would be able to tap up to $10 million in forgivable loans from the federal government to continue cutting paychecks. Democrats prefer sending the money to workers via the existing unemployment insurance system. Schumer called it "unemployment insurance on steroids."
Both income support approaches have benefits and drawbacks, lawmakers said. Republicans say their plan would keep workers linked to employers, for easy recall once the crisis abates. Democrats argue the unemployment system provides a ready-made distribution channel, though states could also become overwhelmed by the surge of jobless claims.
Meanwhile, industries of all kinds are lining up for help, with sharp political divides forming on what industries should receive government assistance.
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.