Trump backs work incentives as part of next stimulus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he supports another coronavirus stimulus bill but wants it to include incentives for Americans to go back to work, setting up a clash with Democrats in Congress over jobless benefits.

“We want to create a very great incentive to work. So, we’re working on that and I’m sure we’ll all come together,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

The remarks indicate the Trump administration will oppose an effort by Democrats in Congress to renew a $600 supplement to weekly jobless benefits set to expire at the end of July that was contained in earlier coronavirus relief legislation.

Many Republicans have argued that the supplemental benefit encourages workers to remain unemployed and they would prefer to provide a benefit for workers returning to the job.

Trump said the structure of the last round of financial aid to struggling Americans created a disincentive for people to return to work.

“It was an incentive, not to go to work. You’d make more money if you don’t go to work – that’s not what the country is all about,” Trump said in the interview. “And people didn’t want that. They wanted to go to work, but it didn’t make sense because they make more money if they didn’t.”

Administration officials have said they will calibrate their response in terms of further stimulus based on economic data set to roll in over the next couple of weeks. Negotiations over another relief bill are not expected to pick up until Congress returns from a break for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Democrats push to extend $600 weekly coronavirus unemployment benefit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. Senate, impatient with the pace of Republicans’ consideration of additional aid related to the coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday proposed long-term extensions to a temporary unemployment insurance program.

The $600-per-week payments to laid-off workers, which began at the end of March and are set to expire on July 31, would be extended until jobless rates in individual states fell below 11%.

On June 5 the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 13.3%.

Under the Democrats’ legislation, these federally backed benefits would fall by $100 for every percentage-point decrease in a state’s unemployment rate, until joblessness falls below 6%.

The proposal comes as 33 million people in the United States are either receiving unemployment benefits or awaiting approval, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

While many workers have been returning to their jobs after states loosened self-quarantine steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a significant increase in hospitalizations in several states has since caused some governors to rein in those actions.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said he supports continuing expanded unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic but said the size of the $600-per-week payments have discouraged some workers from returning to their jobs.

McConnell has ignored a $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill passed by the House of Representatives in May, saying he wanted to first gauge the state of the hobbled U.S. economy before acting on a bill at the end of this month.

But even Republicans wanted to take some action sooner. Late on Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a Democratic bill to extend an expiring $660 billion small business emergency loan program through Aug. 8.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Senate heads for showdown over Republican police reform bill

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate headed for a showdown on Wednesday over a Republican police reform bill that Democrats have rejected as too limited to rein in police misconduct, as public protests continue over George Floyd’s death.

The bill, crafted by the Senate’s only Black Republican, Senator Tim Scott, must garner 60 votes to move forward in the 100-seat chamber. But Republicans control only 53 votes, and Democrats have vowed to oppose the measure while urging talks on a new bipartisan measure.

“It will never get 60 votes,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer vowed on Tuesday. “We need a bipartisan bill and a process to get there. That’s when we will move a bill.”

The Congressional Black Caucus, which represents more than 50 African-American lawmakers, called on senators to oppose the Republican measure, calling it “a completely watered-down fake reform bill.”

A vote is expected around midday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to take steps to allow additional votes on the measure. But Republicans warn that a failed vote could mean a political stalemate.

“This is more about campaign rhetoric and presidential elections,” Scott said of Democrats’ opposition.

Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparked weeks of protests and stirred strong U.S. public sentiment for stopping excessive force by police, especially against African Americans.

But a month later, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are pursuing partisan bills with little chance of winning approval from the Senate and the House of Representatives and being signed into law by President Donald Trump.

As the Senate moves to vote on the Republican bill, a House committee on Wednesday will debate rules for a Thursday vote on more sweeping Democratic legislation that Republicans warn would undermine American law enforcement.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)

Amid coronavirus, reduced voting sites in Kentucky, elsewhere a ‘recipe for disaster’

By John Whitesides

(Reuters) – Kentucky, New York and four other states face another possibly messy day of voting on Tuesday amid the coronavirus outbreak, as officials try to balance a crush of absentee mail ballots with a reduced number of in-person polling locations.

That combination has led to long lines, delays and confusion during primaries in other states, including Wisconsin and Georgia, offering a preview of possible problems if the Nov. 3 general election is conducted under the threat of COVID-19 infections.

Kentucky and New York, which are conducting statewide primaries, encouraged mail-in balloting as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic, resulting in record numbers of absentee ballot requests. Both also encouraged early voting, while cutting back on polling locations as a safety precaution.

But officials and activists are concerned about the potential for trouble in Kentucky, where polling locations statewide were cut to fewer than 200 from more than 3,000 normally, leaving one each for the biggest counties of Jefferson and Fayette.

“It’s just a recipe for disaster. I fear there will be a lot of people who want to vote but won’t,” said Jason Nemes, a Republican state legislator who joined an unsuccessful lawsuit trying to force the largest counties to open more polls.

A competitive Democratic U.S. Senate nominating battle between progressive Charles Booker and establishment choice Amy McGrath has driven up voter interest in Kentucky. They are vying to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.

Nearly 900,000 absentee ballots were issued, or about 27% of registered voters, the Kentucky secretary of state’s office said.

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevin said Kentucky officials pushed mail-in voting in hopes of keeping the numbers down at polling places.

“We have warned people from day one – please don’t do this. It’s not safe,” Blevin, a Democrat, said of voting in person on election day.

New York has seen a similar explosion of interest in absentee ballots, issuing nearly 1.9 million, the board of elections said. In the 2016 primary, about 115,000 absentee ballots were cast.

The board did not provide the number of polling places closed across the state, but activists said consolidations had not been as widespread as in Kentucky and some other states.

There are also primary elections for some congressional, state and local offices in areas of South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.

(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

George Floyd’s brother decries ‘a modern-day lynching’ in testimony to Congress

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – George Floyd’s younger brother took his grief to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday with an impassioned plea that lawmakers not let his brother’s death be in vain, lamenting that he “didn’t deserve to die over $20” in what he called a lynching.

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held the first congressional hearing to examine racial injustice and police brutality following George Floyd’s May 25 death after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death prompted a wave of protests in U.S. cities and abroad.

“They lynched my brother. That was a modern-day lynching in broad daylight,” Philonise Floyd, 42, of Missouri City, Texas, near Houston, told the committee, his voice breaking with emotion.

“His life mattered. All our lives matter. Black lives matter,” he added, wiping away tears.

The Democratic-led House is moving forward with sweeping reform legislation that could come to a vote by July 4, while Senate Republicans are crafting a rival plan.

George Floyd, a 46-year-old Houston native who had worked security at nightclubs, was unarmed when taken into custody outside a market where an employee had reported that a man matching his description tried to pay for cigarettes with a counterfeit bill.

“George wasn’t hurting anyone that day. He didn’t deserve to die over $20. I’m asking you, is that what a black man’s worth? $20? This is 2020. Enough is enough,” his brother said. “It is on you to make sure his death is not in vain.”

He buried his brother on Tuesday and described how they had not been able to say goodbye.

“I’m here to ask you to make it stop. Stop the pain,” Philonise Floyd testified. “George called for help and he was ignored. Please listen to the call I’m making to you now, to the calls of our family and the calls ringing on the streets of all the world.”

It is unclear whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to overcome partisan differences to pass legislation that President Donald Trump would be willing to sign.

Several Republicans pledged cooperation and voiced support for a pivotal provision that would scale back so-called qualified immunity protections that shield police from lawsuits by people suing for damages.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, who said the Republican president may take policy action on race and policing through an executive order, called reduced qualified immunity a “non-starter.” McEnany said Trump’s administration has nearly finalized plans to address police brutality that could be made public within days.

Police officer Derek Chauvin was fired after the incident and charged with second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter. George Floyd and Chauvin worked as security personnel at the same nightclub.

Philonise Floyd said Chauvin knew his brother and killed him with premeditation “just because he didn’t like him,” adding that “it has to have something to do with racism.”

The emotionally-charged hearing had lawmakers and witnesses including several civil rights advocates expressing sorrow over Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of killings of African-Americans by police that have sparked anger on America’s streets and fresh calls for reforms

POLITICAL DIVIDE

The hearing highlighted divisions in Congress and the country between those who want broad changes to policing practices and those who defend the work of law enforcement and blame any problems on, as Republican Representative Mike Johnson put it, a “few bad apples.”

“The vast, vast majority of law enforcement officers are responsible, hard-working, heroic first responders,” added Representative Jim Jordan, the committee’s top Republican.

“While we hold up human rights in the world, we obviously have to hold them up in our country,” said Representative Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which crafted the legislation.

Angela Underwood Jacobs, a Republican witness whose police officer brother was slain during violent protests this month, urged lawmakers to promote a just society by investing in education, housing and job creation.

The Democratic legislation would ban police chokeholds and no-knock warrants, restrict the use of legal force, require police body cameras, make lynching a federal hate crime and take other steps to rein in misconduct.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

Democratic lawmakers unveil sweeping bill on race, police in wake of Floyd death

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats, led by a group of black lawmakers, unveiled sweeping legislation on Monday to combat police violence and racial injustice, two weeks after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody led to widespread protests.

The bill would allow victims of misconduct and their families to seek financial damages against police by limiting the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. It would also make lynching a federal hate crime.

Democrats hope to bring the legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives before the end of June. But its reception in the Republican-controlled Senate is unclear, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noncommittal on the need for legislation.

(Reporting by David Morgan, additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)

Divided by COVID-19: Democratic U.S. areas hit three times as hard as Republican ones

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic splits along partisan lines, a Reuters analysis may help explain why: Death rates in Democratic areas are triple those in Republican ones.

By Wednesday, U.S. counties that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election reported 39 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 residents, according to an analysis of demographic and public health data.

In counties that voted for Republican Donald Trump, 13 of every 100,000 people had died from the virus.

The uneven impact reflects the disproportionate toll the infectious disease has taken in densely packed Democratic-voting cities like New York. Rural areas and far-flung suburbs that typically back Republicans have not seen as direct an impact.

The pattern holds beyond New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. Democratic counties in 36 of the 50 U.S. states collectively reported higher death rates than Republican counties.

In Maryland, where the disease has killed more than 2,000 people, the death rate in the Democratic suburbs of Washington is four times higher than in the conservative counties in the Appalachian panhandle.

In Kansas, which has reported 152 fatalities, the death rate is seven times higher in the two counties that backed Clinton than in the rest of the state.

There are exceptions. Republican counties report a higher death rate in Delaware, Nebraska and South Dakota, where the disease has raced through meatpacking plants. Republican counties have been harder hit in Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota and Texas, where rates are well below the national average.

Partisan attitudes reflect the geographic divide.

A Reuters/Ipsos survey of 1,115 U.S. adults conducted Monday and Tuesday found nearly half of Democrats were “very concerned” about the virus, compared with one-third of Republicans.

Others have found Republicans more eager to lift restrictions aimed at slowing the coronavirus in the United States, which leads the world with more than 92,000 deaths and 1.54 million infections.

ARMED PROTESTS AND REFRIGERATOR TRUCKS

The contrast is especially sharp in Michigan, where refrigerator trucks store corpses in Detroit hospital parking lots, while armed men protest business restrictions at the state capitol. Sheriffs in several Republican-leaning counties have said they will not punish businesses that defy rules put in place by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Trump, who narrowly won Michigan in 2016, is due to visit the state on Thursday. He has pressed Whitmer to lift restrictions in hopes of reviving the economy before the November election.

Michigan counties that backed Clinton in 2016 collectively have reported 79 deaths for every 100,000 people. Counties that backed Trump have reported 25 deaths per 100,000.

Republican pollster Steve Mitchell said voters in the state were sharply split along partisan lines. Democrats are afraid they will catch the disease, while Republicans worry more about the economic damage from nationwide shutdowns that sent unemployment soaring.

“They are not seeing a high caseload in their area and they’re wondering why they’re being treated the same as the city of Detroit,” he said.

Conservative activist Michelle Gregoire said people should not change their behavior to avoid the coronavirus.

“You can’t put yourself in a bubble,” she said.

Democratic state Representative Leslie Love, whose district includes part of Detroit, said the partisan divide reminded her of the statewide response to previous problems like crack cocaine and high auto insurance rates that hit hardest in black neighborhoods.

“It is that same type of disconnect: ‘If it’s not happening to me, if it’s not in my backyard, then that’s their problem over there, and not ours,'” she said.

“It’s going to be your problem, though.”

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Grant Smith; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Democrats push for U.S. coronavirus supply czar to oversee key medical needs

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats on Wednesday proposed a bill that would require a U.S. coronavirus supply czar to oversee critical medical supplies, while the top Senate Republican doubled down on demands for business protections.

Senate Democrats unveiled a new bill requiring the Pentagon to name a civilian officer to oversee the nation’s supply and production of medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

Limited supplies of masks, gloves and testing materials have been blamed for hampering the United States’ response to a pandemic that has now killed more than 58,000 Americans.

The proposal also calls for a comprehensive testing plan that would include viral and antibody testing, and a blueprint for scaling up production of an eventual vaccine for the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

Democrats, frustrated by what they view as Republican President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to seize control of the supply chain for personal protective equipment and testing, want the bill to be part of Congress’s next coronavirus legislation. A companion bill is expected from Democrats in the House of Representatives.

House and Senate Democrats are also pushing for additional funding for state and local governments facing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, with spending estimates of $500 billion for states alone.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the way forward on coronavirus legislation would depend on Democrats’ willingness to agree to protect businesses and others from COVID-related litigation.

“We’re going to insist on this reform, which is not related to money, as a condition for going forward,” McConnell told Fox News Radio.

“We’re willing to discuss the way forward, provided we have protections for the brave people who’ve been on the front lines,” he added, couching his demand as a protection for frontline healthcare workers as well as companies.

Lawmakers grappled with the prospects of new legislation as U.S. states moved to reopen the economy amid reports of supply and testing shortages that health experts warn could lead to a resurgence of coronavirus infections.

With backing from major unions, lawmakers said the medical supply bill would establish a more coherent national response by requiring the secretary of defense to appoint a civilian executive officer charged with overseeing the production and distribution of COVID-19-related equipment.

The bill would also require the administration to produce weekly national assessments of equipment supplies, identify available stockpiles and industries capable of filling orders, post state requests for assistance and establish an inspector general to oversee implementation.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Congress feuds as deal still elusive on small business coronavirus aid

By Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Democrats and Republicans feuded on Monday over who was responsible for delay even as they worked on details of a possible $450 billion-plus deal to provide more aid to small businesses and hospitals hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We could have been done yesterday, but the Democrats continue to hold up, even though we had agreed to all the numbers,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, House of Representatives minority leader, told Fox News.

President Donald Trump said on Sunday that Republicans were “close” to an agreement with Democrats, who have the majority in the House, and suggested there could be a resolution on Monday.

But there was no immediate deal on Monday morning, and the two parties took shots at one another over the holdup.

“How many more millions of (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi’s layoffs will we have to endure before she will put people before politics?” McCarthy wrote on Twitter Monday.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill shot back that Democrats, who have the majority in the House, have given notice that there could be floor action on a bill as soon as Wednesday.

The legislation “could pass by unanimous consent in the House tomorrow, but you cannot control your members who want a recorded vote,” Hammill said in comments aimed at McCarthy. “The delay will be on your end @GOPLeader.”

Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican, sought a recorded vote the last time the House passed a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief package, and has warned he may seek to block future bills from passing without a roll call vote.

Pelosi on Twitter lamented the “staggering” coronavirus death toll numbers, which have crossed 40,000 in the United States.

Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican member of the House, said on Fox News that a bipartisan deal was looking good that would include $310 billion for a small business aid program established last month as part of the $2.3 trillion coronavirus economic relief plan.

That fund, aimed at helping small businesses keep workers on their payrolls during the economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic, has already been exhausted.

Zeldin said there would be at least $50 billion more for a separate small business loan program under the deal still under negotiation. A Democratic source familiar with the talks has said this figure was more likely to be $60 billion.

“I believe that there is a deal coming,” Zeldin said.

The Democratic source, speaking on condition that he not be named, said some $60 billion of the $310 billion was likely to be set aside for minority and rural businesses.

The Democrats also sought more funds for state and local governments and hospitals, as well as food aid for the poor. Republicans have strongly resisted these proposals, although Trump said Sunday he favored more aid for state and local governments and said that could be done at a later date.

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy said aid for states and municipalities will not be included in the package now being negotiated. Cassidy, whose home state of Louisiana has been among those hit hardest by the pandemic, told reporters on a conference call that he thought it made sense because it will too early to assess the extent of the damage in various states.

“It’s not in this package,” he said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lisa Lambert, David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. House approves $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill, sends to Trump

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a $2.2 trillion aid package – the largest in American history – to help individuals and companies cope with an economic downturn caused by the coronavirus outbreak and provide hospitals with urgently needed medical supplies.

The massive bill, also passed by the Republican-controlled Senate late on Wednesday, now goes to Republican President Donald Trump who is expected to promptly sign it into law.

Democrats and Republicans in the Democratic-led House approved the package on a voice vote, turning back a procedural challenge from Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who had sought to force a formal, recorded vote.

Massie, an independent-minded Republican who has repeatedly defied party leaders, said on Twitter that he thought the bill contained too much extraneous spending and gave too much power to the Federal Reserve. He did not speak on the House floor during the three-hour debate.

Trump called Massie a “third rate Grandstander” on Twitter and said he should be thrown out of the Republican Party.

“He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay,” Trump wrote.

Other said he was putting lawmakers’ health at risk.

At least three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than two dozen have self-quarantined to limit its spread.

“Thomas Massie, this is disgusting. This is inhumane,” Democratic Representative Max Rose said on Fox News.

The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and Trump signs it into law. It passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday night.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

It will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 85,000, and the death toll exceeded 1,200.

The Labor Department on Thursday reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Lisa Lambert, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Oatis)