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U.S. nears goal line in coronavirus stimulus negotiations, Senate leaders say

Democrats and Republicans said Tuesday they were close to reaching a deal on a $2 trillion US coronavirus economic stimulus package, raising hopes that the U.S. Congress could soon act to try to limit the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Trump hopes economy is 'raring to go' by April 12, but WHO concerned about U.S. disease response

Police caution tape surrounds a playground in Lake Oswego, Ore., on Tuesday. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide stay-at-home order on Monday that closed many businesses, as well as all playgrounds, basketball courts and sport courts. (Gillian Flaccus/The Associated Press)

Democrats and Republicans said Tuesday they were close to reaching a deal on a $2 trillion US coronavirus economic stimulus package, raising hopes that the U.S. Congress could soon act to try to limit the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Democrats have twice blocked attempts to advance the bill, saying it did not provide enough money for states and hospitals, lacked sufficient aid for unemployed Americans and did not include adequate supervision of a massive fund to aid big businesses.

Republicans, Democrats and top aides to President Donald Trump have negotiated for days over the package, which would be the third and largest passed to address the crisis if it is backed by both the Republican-majority Senate and Democratic-majority House of Representatives.

Trump's administration has launched a major push for action to try to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic and steep stock market decline, after he spent weeks dismissing the risks.

'Gravity of this moment'

Trump said during a Fox News appearance Tuesday that the White House could consider extending its 15-day guidelines to promote social distancing, announced on March 16, but he also indicated it was not his preference.

"I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," he said from the Rose Garden. Easter falls on April 12.

WATCH Trump wants U.S. 'back to work' by Easter:

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered thousands of businesses, thrown millions out of work and led state governors to order about 100 million people — nearly a third of the nation's population — to stay at home. Those orders are largely coming from governors and state officials, so it's not clear what would happen even if Trump and the White House implored the nation to resume everyday activities.

With respect to the emerging bipartisan bill, it is expected to provide financial aid for Americans out of work because of the virus and help for struggling industries, such as airlines.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said from the floor of the chamber that "the urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone."

Concern about ending social distancing too soon

While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote appeared likely Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.    

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits and a $367-billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. One of the last issues to close concerned $500-billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries. 

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, and Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have exchanged accusations of obstruction as the two parties try and hammer out a massive aid package for businesses and U.S. workers. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

A one-time payment of $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, would go directly to the public.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars.

In a series of tweets posted Tuesday, Trump implored lawmakers to strike a deal.

Trump in recent days has sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus's march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy. On Tuesday, he weighed a relaxation of social distancing guidelines after the 15-day period is up. 

His suggestion that the pandemic could ease and allow a return to normalcy in a mere few weeks is not supported by public health officials or many others in government, including some in his own party.

Republicans, including Liz Cheney and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have publicly expressed concern about returning to "business as normal" too soon.

"There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what's necessary to stop the virus," said Cheney, congresswoman from Wyoming.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose state of New York has become the epicentre of the U.S. outbreak with 25,665 cases, strongly opposed allowing people to travel, socialize and get back to workplaces too quickly.

"If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it's no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life," he said, at a convention centre in Manhattan that is being repurposed to fit beds for coronavirus patients.

Cuomo said the projected need for hospital beds in New York at the peak of the outbreak has jumped to 140,000, compared with the 53,000 that are available. He also said that the apex of the outbreak could still be 14 to 21 days away.

WHO raises concerns

Wall Street jumped at the open Tuesday at the signs Washington was nearing a deal, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its best day in almost a century, rising 2,112.98 points, or 11.3 per cent, to 20,704 — its best percentage increase since 1933.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that the United States could become the global epicentre of the pandemic.

In Geneva, WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told reporters there had been a "very large acceleration" in infections in the United States.

Over the previous 24 hours, 85 per cent of new cases were in Europe and the U.S., and of those, 40 per cent were in the U.S.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center, a Manhattan convention centre that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the hard-hit state. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The U.S. national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more than 44,000 Americans have the virus, according to figures as of late Tuesday afternoon, with 544 deaths. The number of overall cases could be understated, as some hospitals and states have complained about a lack of testing kits.

Federal lawmakers Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and congressmen Ben McAdams (Utah) and Mario Díaz-Balart (Florida) are among those who have tested positive for the virus, as have members of the military. The Pentagon said Tuesday that 174 U.S. service members are confirmed to have the virus, an increase of 41 from the previous day.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose foundation has funded tens of millions of dollars of research into the detection and treatment of COVID-19, was also critical of the suggestion to ease restrictions.

"There really is no middle ground, and it's very tough to say to people, 'Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there's maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is all that counts,'" Gates said in an interview with TED on Tuesday. "It's very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds."

Calls to invoke rarely used federal powers

Some U.S. state and local officials have decried a lack of co–ordinated federal action, saying that having localities act on their own has put them in competition for supplies.

"Only the federal government has that power and not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me," Cuomo said at his briefing. "I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act."

People line up Tuesday outside Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City to be tested for the coronavirus. (Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press)

The law, which dates to the Korean War of the 1950s, grants the president broad authority to "expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base to support military, energy, space and homeland security programs," according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website.

Peter Gaynor, administrator of FEMA, told CNN the administration will invoke the act imminently to procure 60,000 coronavirus test kits, amid severe shortages of kits, masks, ventilators and other crucial equipment for health-care workers.

The White House did not immediately confirm Gaynor's account. Trump said in a Twitter post earlier Tuesday he has not needed to rely on the act to get supplies. "The Defense Production Act is in full force, but haven't had to use it because no one has said NO! Millions of masks coming as back up to States," Trump said.

In another development, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Tuesday it would award $100 million immediately to 1,381 health centres across the nation to bolster their response to the pandemic.

The health centres may use the funds to meet screening and testing needs, acquire medical supplies and boost telehealth capacity, the HHS said. The $100 million was earmarked in an emergency spending bill of $8.3 billion signed by Trump on March 6.

With files from CBC News

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