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US congress homes in on US$2t rescue for virus-hit economy
[WASHINGTON] US lawmakers scrambled Tuesday to seal a deal that buttresses the teetering economy by giving roughly US$2 trillion to hospitals, businesses and ordinary Americans buckling under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.
"At this point, of the few outstanding issues, I don't see any that can't be overcome in the next few hours," top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer told the chamber after meeting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The optimism, shared by Republican leaders and Mnuchin, was a ray of hope after vicious partisan infighting over how to craft what ultimately may be the largest emergency rescue package lawmakers have ever passed.
The Senate failed on multiple occasions in recent days to advance a massive but controversial Republican-led proposal, and pressure has soared to swiftly reach a compromise that provides relief for hundreds of millions of Americans.
President Donald Trump called for an immediate resolution to the stalemate.
"Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today," he said on Twitter.
"The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy. Our workers will be hurt!"
But Mr Trump also acknowledged that he nixed an initial compromise package in part because Democrats included "terrible" environmental regulations.
"I said I'm not signing this," Mr Trump told a televised town hall.
As the day got underway, US stocks, which had shed one third of their value since the crisis hit US shores in February, soared on the prospects of a stimulus that could send checks to Americans potentially amounting to more than US$3,000 for a family-of-four.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 11.4 per cent.
Democrats rejected the original Republican package, arguing it put corporations ahead of workers, including health professionals on the front lines of the battle against a pandemic that has infected nearly 50,000 people and killed 600 in the United States.
But an agreement appeared within reach after days of intense negotiations between Republicans, Democrats and Trump administration officials.
"We are very close," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told members.
"It's taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here," the top Republican added. "I hope today is the day this body will get it done."
As the hours ticked away without a deal in hand, and as negotiators refined the language of a package so huge that it would impact every sector of the US economy, several lawmakers voiced their anxiety.
"Americans can't wait any longer!" tweeted top House Republican Kevin McCarthy.
Any relief package that passes the Senate will need to clear the Democratic-led House too before going to the president's desk.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed confidence the Senate deal could be done soon.
"We're in the red zone and hopefully we can get it over the finish line," the powerful California Democrat told CNN.
She suggested the measure might even pass the House by unanimous consent.
Such a move would cut through eliminate floor debate and save time, and importantly not require members of the House, currently on recess, to return to Washington to vote amid the crisis.
But getting 435 lawmakers to swallow a gargantuan rescue package without a chance to weigh in could be an uphill proposition in a sharply divided chamber.
Mr McConnell's opening bid included onetime "recovery rebates" of up to US$1,200 for most adults, and hundreds of billions of dollars in loan guarantees to industries hit by the crisis, including airlines, and to small businesses.
Democrats fumed that the measure did not mandate that companies keep their employees on payroll, provided insufficient oversight on corporations receiving the infusions, and needed more aid for hospitals desperate for military equipment like protective gear, intensive care beds and ventilators.
Those shortcomings were addressed in the compromise, according to Democratic leaders.
Mr Schumer said it will almost certainly include a guarantee the federal government will broaden eligibility of unemployment insurance and offer expanded benefits for four months to workers sickened by or sacked due to the pandemic.
Ms Pelosi meanwhile unveiled a more generous, roughly US$2.5 trillion counterproposal that included ambitious elements like guaranteed paid and family medical leave, student loan forgiveness and oversight of the US$500 billion earmarked for corporations.
"Much of what we have in our bill is reflected in this supposed agreement, what we've seen so far," Ms Pelosi said.