Trump, GOP seek way forward on coronavirus
President Trump and Senate Republicans held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the administration’s response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has stunned the United States and roiled financial markets.
Trump only met with GOP lawmakers, a surprising decision given that some of the states hardest hit by the health crisis, such as California, Massachusetts, New York and Washington, are represented entirely by Democrats in the Senate.
Past crises, such as the Sept. 11,2001, attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, have brought the parties together on Capitol Hill, but this time has been different.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has routinely attacked what he calls the administration’s “incompetence,” while relations between Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) remain frosty after their bruising impeachment fight that spilled into the State of the Union address.
The president and his Capitol Hill allies discussed a wide-ranging menu of policy options to keep the economy from running off the rails, a danger that seemed very real on Monday when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 2,000 points in the greatest one-day plunge since the 2008 financial crisis. Trump made clear his top priority is a payroll tax cut that would last until the end of the year. He floated the idea of zeroing out the payroll tax altogether until after the Nov. 3 election, but going that far is likely to spark pushback from Democrats.
“The biggest one would clearly be the payroll tax,” said a GOP senator who spoke on background. “The questions are what size would it be, whether it would apply to both [employers and workers] and how you replace the money in the Social Security fund.”
Congress last extended a payroll tax cut package in 2012 during the Obama administration. While the bill attracted broad bipartisan support, some liberals and conservatives rejected it — including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The president and GOP lawmakers on Tuesday discussed paid leave for people who miss work because of the virus, small-business loans for impacted employers, extending the federal tax filing deadline beyond April 15 and infrastructure spending to generate more jobs, according to lawmakers who attended.
“I think the president recognizes this is an extraordinary situation that may require extraordinary measures and I think he’ll get a great deal of support from the conference as a result,” said Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
They also talked about a financial rescue package for the hard-hit airline and cruise ship industries, as well as putting some pressure on Saudi Arabia to reconsider a ramp-up in oil production that caused oil prices to plummet 24 percent on Monday.
Trump told GOP senators that he had spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about stabilizing oil prices, according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who represents a major oil-producing state.
Trump’s participation caught lawmakers by surprise. They had expected to hear only from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow. But the White House announced late Tuesday morning that the president would also join senators at the Capitol, a sign that the swift-moving crisis has become Trump’s No. 1 priority.
Trump has come under sharp attack from Democrats for not taking a more aggressive approach to combating the virus once it became apparent that it would reach American shores.
Some Republicans, such as Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and John Kennedy (La.), early on expressed skepticism over the administration’s handling of the health crisis, but those internal criticisms have died down as the administration has ratcheted up its response, holding daily briefings led by Vice President Pence.
The president said nothing to Romney, who voted last month with Democrats to remove Trump from office on the charge of abuse of power, according to lawmakers in the room.
Trump didn’t get any pushback from the GOP caucus over his handling of the crisis, but lawmakers had a couple of suggestions.
Republican senators urged the president to get Anthony Fauci, a senior infectious disease expert, more involved as the face of the federal response to the coronavirus, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting. Fauci was appointed as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984 and has advised six presidents on a variety of domestic and global health issues.
“That was suggested because he has credibility,” said one Republican senator who attended the meeting. “He speaks with authority, he has respect in the medical community. That’s what the suggestion was, because this is a medical thing. It’s not a political crisis — though we can make one out of it.”
Trump left some of his GOP allies cringing when he declared at a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that he might have a “natural ability” to deal with the complex health crisis because his uncle was a “super genius” who taught at MIT.
A Senate Republican aide said, “People want [Fauci] to be front and center.”
Some Democrats on Tuesday continued to hammer the administration for not acting aggressively enough.
“We are now far behind where we ought to be in understanding how far the virus has already spread,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The United States has the best hospitals, doctors and scientists in the world. Yet, currently we are lagging far behind other countries when it comes to testing our citizens.”
Republicans also acknowledge they will need Democratic support to pass a fiscal stimulus package.
“I think they view it as something they would want to move fairly quickly, once they have a proposal. … [But] ultimately you’re going to have Democratic buy-in for whatever comes out,” Thune said.
Pence on Tuesday updated GOP senators on the production and distribution of testing kits that have been in short supply in recent weeks, a point that Democrats have repeatedly hit when lambasting the administration’s response.
Senators said that the administration plans to have 4 million testing kits distributed by the end of the week.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) made a strong pitch at the meeting for a bill sponsored by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) that would give the manufacturers of industrial respirators immunity from prospective lawsuits so they could mass-produce masks for health care providers.
The measure would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to grant limited liability protection to manufacturers of countermeasures, such as respirators, during an outbreak or epidemic. Cotton later said Trump endorsed the idea at the meeting.
—Jordain Carney contributed.
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