Trump triggers congressional debate with comments on reopening economy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE’s push to relax social-distancing restrictions and reopen businesses by Easter has ignited a fierce debate on Capitol Hill — and among people around the country — over whether aggressive efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic have been too draconian or not severe enough.

The fight is mostly playing out along party lines, with pro-business Republicans desperate for American life to get back to normal. They argue the economic toll from the "Great Shutdown of 2020" will be far worse than the lives lost from the deadly virus.

Democrats, for the most part, have made the case that more stringent and aggressive public-health measures are needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has already infected more than 53,000 people in the U.S. and killed at least 675, according to data from Johns Hopkins University

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“It is irresponsible to place the desire to shrink the COVID-19 economic recession before protecting the lives of the American people,” said Rep. Don Beyer (Va.), the top Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee who was quarantined with his wife after they were exposed to the coronavirus. “How many of our family members must we sacrifice to prop up the stock market?”

Appearing on CNN and MSNBC, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAs coronavirus surges, Trump tries to dismantle healthcare for millions Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Pelosi plans legislation to limit pardons, commutations after Roger Stone move MORE (D-Calif.) warned that Trump’s “notion-mongering” about the disease could result in a train wreck for the country, even as she continued negotiating with top White House officials on a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.    

“What the president is suggesting is that that light at the end of the tunnel could be a train coming at us if people are out-and-about in a way that spreads the disease further," she said.

So far, just a handful of Republicans have broken with Trump. House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneySome in Congress want to keep sending our troops to Afghanistan Biggs, Massie call on Trump to remove troops from Afghanistan Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide MORE (R-Wyo.), who’s expressed concerns about her elderly parents, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney, was one of the first to call for tours of the U.S. Capitol to be suspended amid the outbreak. On Tuesday, she tweeted that there will be “no normally functioning economy” if medical professionals and hospitals become overwhelmed.

Two GOP governors — Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland — have taken some of the most aggressive steps to protect their constituents from the infectious COVID-19 virus, including shutting down schools and nonessential businesses and ramping up the number of hospital beds.  

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“Some of the messaging is pretty confusing. ... It doesn't match with what we're doing here in Maryland. Some of the messaging coming out of the administration doesn't match,” Hogan, chairman of the National Governors Association, said Tuesday on CNN. “We don't think that we're going to be in any way ready to be out of this in five or six days or so, or whenever this 15 days is up from the time that they started this imaginary clock.”

But in his Rose Garden interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Trump doubled down on his position that it’s time for the nation’s businesses — and the U.S. economy as a whole — to begin opening back up soon after more than a week of mandatory closures and shelter-in-place orders imposed by California, New York and other hard-hit states.

“It’s not built to shut down … You can destroy a country this way, by closing it down, where it literally goes from being the most prosperous,” Trump said during a Fox News virtual town hall.

While the nation’s governors have taken the lead on fighting the coronavirus, Trump’s words and evolving position on the shutdown are having far-reaching consequences. Over the past three years of the Trump presidency, Republicans have been incredibly unified with lawmakers, governors and voters taking their cues from the president; this issue will certainly be no different.

Health professionals say it’s far too early to be lifting restrictions, saying a wave of coronavirus cases could strike the U.S. in the coming days and weeks mirroring the devastation in Italy. And many fear the existing patchwork approach by cities and states will only become more dire if government officials begin easing restrictions.

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More than 1,000 students returned to the Liberty University campus in Virginia on Tuesday after President Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump ally, officially reopened residence halls, cafeterias and other services.

And while Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a stay-at-home order amid an outbreak there — nearly 1,400 positive cases and 46 deaths — the governor of neighboring Mississippi, Republican Tate Reeves, said the Magnolia State would not follow suit.

“It is my goal to make sure we make good, solid decisions based on experts,” Reeves said in a Facebook Live address. “No one at the state Department of Health has recommended that we have a statewide shelter-in-place order."

“Mississippi's never going to be China. Mississippi's never going to be North Korea,” he added.

Conservative Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a staunch Trump ally who unveiled legislation Tuesday condemning the Chinese government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, said he fully supported the president’s calls.  

“It’s only reasonable for the president to offer hope to the American people who are stuck without work or pay,” Banks told The Hill, “especially in light of a dysfunctional Congress not able to deliver aid to those who need it most right now.”

Mike Lillis and Jordain Carney contributed.