Death Toll, Ailing Economy Fail to Unite Congress on Next Steps

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Congress‘s near unanimity on last month’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill has given way to partisan finger-pointing that threatens to poison the debate when lawmakers try to construct another emergency boost to the struggling economy.

The crisis has only worsened since President Donald Trump signed the law on March 27. But there is little consensus on next steps as patients flood hospitals in some U.S. cities and leaders extend the economic shutdown.

Trump and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer late last week exchanged biting letters accusing each other of fumbling the initial response. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democrats for distracting the nation from an emerging threat with an impeachment trial. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s slow response has cost lives.

28,222 in U.S.Most new cases today

-26% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​069 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

The rancor was growing as the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. pushed past 325,000, deaths exceeded 9,200 and government data began showing the pandemic’s rapid and widespread impact on the world’s biggest economy. Meanwhile, the current rescue plan got off to a rocky start, as small businesses struggled to submit documents and lenders ran into trouble with the government’s portal for loans.

The increasingly alarming numbers prompted Pelosi to scale back her earlier ambitions for Congress‘s next coronavirus stimulus package. She said Congress should “update” the current legislation to provide more money for small businesses and individuals. Pelosi said over the weekend she wants the legislation to get a vote this month.

Yet there isn’t consensus on what the next stimulus should look like. McConnell told the Associated Press in an interview that there will be a fourth virus-related bill, but said he and Pelosi have “a little different point of view” about the timing of the next package and what should be included.

Even after last week’s jobless claims shattered all records, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said he didn’t think a fourth tranche of aid “is appropriate at this time,” adding that a “tweak” to the most recent legislation might be in order. He also took the opportunity to accuse Pelosi of delaying earlier stimulus packages.

Equipment Shortages

Meanwhile, Trump’s plan to nominate a White House lawyer to the newly created inspector general post overseeing coronavirus stimulus spending was panned by Democrats, who said an administration insider isn’t the right person for the job.

Lawmakers in both parties are already proposing an assessment of the U.S. response to the outbreak, which has exposed shortages of equipment and the faltering efforts of the federal government to get and distribute medical supplies where needed. But even what form that takes is the subject of partisan bickering.

Pelosi said some “after-action” report on the government’s virus response will come in time.

Representative Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican lit into Pelosi on Twitter: “You’d think 3 years of failed investigations & an impeachment flop would teach Dems their lesson — but apparently even a pandemic won’t stop them.”

Impeachment has been a running theme for Republicans in countering criticism of Trump’s actions.

“I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment,” McConnell said on the syndicated “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”

In an unusual letter responding to Schumer on Thursday, Trump also raised the impeachment as a distraction and tried to turn it on his critics.

“If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers), and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been so completely unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy,”’ Trump wrote.

‘Grim Toll’

Schumer had written that as the virus outbreak spreads, “and its terrible, grim toll grows more severe with each passing day, the tardiness and inadequacy of this administration’s response to the crisis becomes more painfully evident.”

While the November election may be far from the minds of voters now, the outbreak is going to define the fight for the White House and control of Congress. Both sides are attempting to set the narrative for the campaign, including the GOP claims the impeachment trial distracted from the emerging threat.

“Based on how quickly voters pick up on partisan cues from their party, it’s likely to gain at least some traction with core supporters,” Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s governmental affairs institute, said of that argument.

But in Trump’s first public comments about the virus on Jan. 22 -- the day that the first American case was reported and one day after his impeachment trial in the Senate began -- the president said he was not worried about the virus.

“No. Not at all,” Trump said. “And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

The White House on Jan. 29 did announce the formation of the Coronavirus Task Force to help monitor the spread of the virus and provide updates to the president. By Jan. 31, the administration declared the coronavirus a public health emergency, announced Chinese travel restrictions, and suspended entry into the U.S. for foreign nationals who pose a risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

Concern Rising

Still, Trump continued to publicly downplay the impacts, including on Feb. 10 in interviews and a speech suggesting the outbreak would dissipate with the warm spring weather. As late as Feb. 24 -- three weeks after the impeachment trial had ended -- Trump was still saying and tweeting that the outbreak was very much under control. The next day, he tweeted criticism of Schumer for proposing that the White House request for $2.5 billion to prepare for coronavirus was inadequate.

Over the same period, concern in Congress was rising, but most lawmakers weren’t sounding alarms.

There was a Senate briefing by administration health officials on Jan. 24 but not all senators attended. Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Jim Risch of Idaho, along with Democrats Patty Murray of Washington and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, afterward released a tepid joint statement saying they were monitoring the outbreak and in communication with agencies “on actions and precautions to prevent further spread of this virus.”

Two days later, Schumer called on the Department of Health and Human Services to declare coronavirus a public health emergency, which would free up $85 million in funding for federal agencies -- a fraction of what was eventually needed.

While the virus threat by the end of January was becoming a more prominent concern for other lawmakers, it still had not fully crystallized.

On Jan. 27 Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, issued a statement calling the disease’s spread in China “troubling” and promised to provide federal health officials more funding “if necessary.”

But DeLauro also said “at the moment, prominent medical experts believe influenza poses a far greater risk to people across the United States than the coronavirus.”

Republican Senator Tom Cotton was one of the few who was early to warn about the threat from the virus. He said Tuesday on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” he began looking at the potential impacts of the virus in mid-January.

But, Cotton said,”I have to tell you that in mid-January and late-January, unfortunately, Washington, especially the Congress, was consumed with another matter — you may recall the partisan impeachment of the president.”

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