Washington — US legislators clashed on Sunday over the details of a $1-trillion-plus bill to help stem the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, as senators prepared to cast votes on advancing the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said the bill would be at risk if they did not quickly strike a deal as a procedural vote loomed, after earlier pronouncing that the two parties were “very close” on a deal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her party planned to introduce its own bill as fellow Democrats raised concerns that the Republican proposal prioritised protecting companies over people.
The Senate bill is Congress's third effort to blunt the economic hit and envisages financial aid for average Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries including airlines.
Its controversial provisions included those aimed at helping corporations, rather than workers, weather the crisis, as well as those allowing the government to delay disclosing what firms, states or municipalities had received aid for up to six months.
Both liberal and moderate Democrats were critical of the Republican bill and some even said the negotiations were going backwards, which signalled McConnell may not get the 60 votes he needs to clear a first procedural vote at 6pm.
The virus has killed at least 380 and sickened more than 25,000 across the US, leading governors and mayors to shut schools, businesses and many aspects of American life.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has tested positive for coronavirus, his office said, becoming the first member of the Senate to announce he has Covid-19.
President Donald Trump's administration has been pushing for aggressive steps to stem the economic hit, after Trump spent several weeks downplaying the risks.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the November US presidential election, blasted the president's handling of the crisis.
“President Trump neglected, minimised, and lied about this virus,” Biden said in a statement. “Stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them.”
Prominent Democrats on Sunday pushed back on the idea of propping up corporate America with the bill.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the package would include loans for small businesses, direct deposits that could give an average family of four $3,000 and up to $4-trillion in liquidity for the US central bank to help businesses get through the next 90 to 120 days.
A Republican-drafted bill seen by Reuters gives the US Treasury authority to provide up to $500bn in loans, loan guarantees and other investments in eligible businesses, states and municipalities to help tide them over during the crisis.
Of this, up to $50bn could provide loans and loan guarantees for passenger airlines, $8bn for cargo air carriers and $17bn for businesses critical to national security.
The remaining $425bn would be available for loans, loan guarantees and other investments for the US Federal Reserve to provide liquidity to help the financial system lend to businesses, states and municipalities.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Democratic presidential candidate, told reporters there was “great unhappiness” among Democrats over the bill, while Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said the bill was “weighted to big corporations.”