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Coronavirus Aid Package Is In Turmoil In The Senate


What is the best way for the United States to spend almost $2 trillion? Lawmakers are negotiating over exactly that question as they try to help the economy endure the hit it's taking because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Senate Republicans say they know what they want. But then yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked a vote to proceed on a bill.

NPR's Susan Davis has been following all of this. Good morning, Sue.


KING: What happened last night, exactly?

DAVIS: Well, it's important to understand it wasn't on an actual piece of legislation itself. That's still under negotiation. What Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was trying to do was expedite the process in the Senate, end those negotiations so they could get to a bill in the coming days. Democrats blocked it because they didn't like where the status of the underlying negotiations are. And as long as you have that leverage, you can keep negotiating. But that delaying tactic was really infuriating for Republicans. And this is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor after that failed.


MITCH MCCONNELL: The American people are watching this spectacle. I'm told the futures market is down 5%. I'm also told that that's when trading stops. So the notion that we have time to play games here with the American economy and the American people is utterly absurd.

DAVIS: McConnell's concern, obviously, when the markets open later this morning, that they will look like Washington isn't responding to some fears there, although Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he still believes they can have a deal. It's important to know negotiations continued early into the morning hours, Secretary Treasury Steven Mnuchin up on the Hill talking to Schumer and other Democrats. So things are still moving.

KING: Yeah. It seems like Democrats and Republicans would be equally worried about the economy given what we've seen in the markets over the last week. So when it comes to this bill, where does the difference of opinion lie? What do they disagree about?

DAVIS: Important to note that they do agree on the main structural parts of the bill. And two of the main things are small business loans, loan guarantees and direct cash payments to Americans.

One of the big holdups is that, first of all, Democrats just want more. They want more money for unemployment benefits for workers. They want more money for hospitals. And they want more language in the bill that would clarify how it's going to help corporations. They don't want a, quote-unquote, "bailout." The current draft would give the Treasury secretary a ton of discretion on how to spend that money. So they're essentially saying they need to know that the money that's going to go to corporations is going to go to the workers themselves. And this is a sticking point. This is probably the main sticking point before they can get a deal.

KING: And this is becoming more urgent, Sue, because there are now some U.S. senators who are self-quarantining, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, the coronavirus has already come to Capitol Hill. There was already two House lawmakers who have said they tested positive for the virus. Senator Rand Paul - he's a Republican from Kentucky - announced that he did, too, yesterday. There were already two Republican senators in quarantine. Two additional senators have had to go into self-quarantine because of contact with Senator Rand Paul. There's also - you know, that's a very clear public health concern on Capitol Hill, where senators are still gathering.

There's also just a legislative math reality that Mitch McConnell now needs even more Democratic votes to move forward with a piece of legislation 'cause he's down five of his own.

KING: People who are self-quarantining - just quickly - they can't, like, vote from afar?

DAVIS: They can't. There's no rules or infrastructure in the House and Senate to allow lawmakers to vote remotely. And they would have to change the rules of both chambers. And arguably, it might be unconstitutional. So it's not as simple as many people believe it would be to vote remotely.

KING: That's so interesting. Sue, I guess the big question now is, what happens next?

DAVIS: Well, negotiations are ongoing. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke last night. He said that he was - had plans to meet with Mnuchin. He said he was optimistic they could announce a deal as early as this morning. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says if they don't make any progress, she's looking to put forward a bill of her own. And if that happens, that does mean that negotiations are going to drag on.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks so much for your reporting on this one.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.