Trump pitches his coronavirus payroll tax break to Congress
Republicans wary of more spending; Democrats say a health-focused response is needed
U.S. President Donald Trump pitched his proposed payroll tax break Tuesday on Capitol Hill as pressure mounts on the administration and Congress to work more vigorously to contain the coronavirus outbreak and respond to the financial fallout.
Trump's economic team joined in presenting the economic stimulus package privately to wary Senate Republicans, who have been cool to additional spending at this stage. Democrats are preparing their own package of low-cost virus testing, unemployment insurance and sick pay for workers struggling to keep paychecks coming as the outbreak disrupts workplaces.
"We're taking this unbelievably seriously," Trump said after his meeting at the Capitol. "It will go away, just stay calm."
Asked why he has not yet been tested for the virus, after having been in close contact with several advisers and members of Congress who are now self-quarantined after exposure, Trump said: "I don't think it's a big deal" and "I feel very good."
WATCH | Trump says he sees no need to be tested for coronavirus
White House officials have been blindsided by the president's sudden moves. As Trump headed to Capitol Hill, two administration officials said the proposals he was putting in play had not been completed. They were unauthorized to discuss the planning and requested anonymity.
In addition to payroll tax relief, Trump has said he wants help for hourly-wage workers to ensure they're "not going to miss a paycheque" and "don't get penalized for something that's not their fault." He's also mentioned small-business loans.
But so far, the president's approach, based on tax breaks, is receiving a cool response from Democrats as well as Republicans from his own party who say it's too soon to consider fresh spending from Capitol Hill. Trump also said Tuesday he planned to help the beleaguered cruise ship and airline industries.
Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats that Congress should keep working this week despite concerns about infection spreading there.
"We are the captains of the ship," Pelosi said during a closed-door meeting, according to a person in the room unauthorized to discuss the private caucus and granted anonymity. "We are the last to leave." But time is short as Congress heads toward its scheduled break next week.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
Star Trek greeting
At the U.S. Capitol, some senators said they resisted shaking Trump's hand. Lawmakers were given new instructions on how to protect themselves at the Capitol, with the House's attending physician asking them to stop shaking hands or touching people during greetings — he recommended the split-fingers Star Trek greeting instead.
WATCH | Trump says there have been no issues with testing in the U.S.
Crowds are the norm in the Capitol and handshakes ubiquitous, even between political foes. But about a half dozen lawmakers have placed themselves in quarantine after being exposed to someone who had the virus, and the norm has been upended.
During House Democrats' closed session, one lawmaker, Rep. Raul Ruiz, who is a doctor, noted that the average age in Congress is 57, that some lawmakers have underlying health conditions and that their work requires them to fly back and forth between home and the capital.
Still, Pelosi implored lawmakers to keep working to strengthen the country's defences. Rather than picking up their own coffee and snacks for the breakfast meeting, lawmakers were served by staff from the buffet and warned off touching the serving utensils.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber saying only that Republicans "look forward to discussing" the ideas "so we can all consider the best ways to move forward." Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and adviser Larry Kudlow are expected at the weekly Republican lunch.
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said the virus outbreak demands a "health care" solution. Democrats are proposing affordable testing, more unemployment benefits and paid leave for working families affected by the virus.
"The administration seems to believe that the answer to any problem is another tax cut," Schumer said. "The best way to ensure economic security for the American people is to deal directly with the coronavirus itself.
It was not immediately clear how Trump was aiming to provide assistance to employees weighing whether to stay home because of illness — a crucial aim of public health officials seeking to curtail the spread of the virus.
One mechanism, backed by the Trump-allied National Association of Manufacturers, involves a proposed tax credit for employers who pay employees who are quarantined.
Republicans in isolation
Trump stepped forward with the contours of an initiative Monday after markets dropped sharply and as the outbreak spread. Markets recovered from some of the losses Tuesday, reacting positively to the prospects for an economic boost from Washington.
Several Trump confidants have disclosed they are isolating themselves after potential exposure to the virus; one lawmaker travelled with the president from Florida on Air Force One on Monday; another was his just-tapped new chief of staff.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, which monitors financial markets, encouraged employees at its Washington headquarters to work from home after an employee there had respiratory symptoms and was referred for coronavirus testing.
And U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper postponed a trip to India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan that was to begin Monday, citing the coronavirus crisis, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said Tuesday. She said he would remain in the U.S to help manage the Pentagon response.
At the Capitol, Democratic lawmakers were told by the House chief administrative officer behind closed doors that the office could support up to 10,000 staff members teleworking if need be. Laptop orders were being expedited and cyber-security measures reviewed.