Senate Recess Likely to Damper Coronavirus Response

WASHINGTON (CN) — The White House pitched Senate lawmakers on a wide range of legislative responses to the coronavirus outbreak Tuesday, but offered no timeline to speak of or any parameters for how the plan will look.

Among the topics the White House suggested to Senate Republicans during a party luncheon Tuesday were a payroll-tax cut and paid-leave programs, as well as economic relief for small businesses and certain industries that have been hit particularly hard by the outbreak.

“They came in very chopped up,” President Donald Trump said after the meeting. “A lot of them are things that you wanted to get for other things. We’re looking at solving this problem.”

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during a coronavirus briefing in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Congress has already passed an $8.3 billion bill aimed at improving the medical response to the outbreak, which has now infected more than 900 people across the country and killed 29. Amid historic stock losses spurred on by the virus, the Trump administration is now eyeing another package aimed at boosting the economy.

A final proposal remains far off, however, especially with Congress set to take a scheduled recess next week and without a clear proposal around which senators can coalesce.

Senators leaving the lunch on Tuesday characterized it as an opportunity to hear about and give input on what the White House has been considering, rather than a comprehensive legislative pitch.

“If the administration has decided on specific tools, it didn’t share that with us,” Senator John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters. “That is not a criticism. This was to allow us to have input.”

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said the White House told lawmakers it is evaluating multiple plans for how long a payroll-tax cut would last, though the Washington Post quoted Trump as having specifically mentioned extending it to the election in November.

As for the proposal for paid sick leave, Senator Mike Braun, R-Ind., said his understanding of the White House suggestion is that it would be aimed at small businesses.

Democrats have called for a paid-leave program to be part of a federal response to the outbreak, but Senate Republicans did not rule out the possibility of supporting such a program, even if the idea is not orthodox in the party.

“This administration is going to consider a bunch of options, and in extraordinary times you might have to consider supporting extraordinary measures,” Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said.

Whatever package comes together will need to have bipartisan support, given Republican control of the Senate and Democratic control of the House. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met Tuesday with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after spending time down the hall with Senate Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is hopeful Mnuchin and Pelosi will be able to reach an agreement, citing their work on a bipartisan budget deal last year.

“We’re hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together so that we end up not playing partisan games at a time, which seems to me, to cry out for bipartisan, bicameral agreement,” McConnell told reporters. “That’s what I’m hoping to see and hoping to see very soon.”

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