U.S. Senate kills $300 billion coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday killed a $300 billion coronavirus aid bill written by Senate Republican leadership, as Democrats blocked the measure on a procedural vote.

The Senate voted 52-47 to advance the bill, short of the 60 votes needed to continue debate on the measure.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Senate to vote on Republican coronavirus aid bill opposed by Democrats

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate was set to vote on Thursday on a Republican bill providing around $300 billion in new coronavirus aid, far below the $3 trillion Democrats insist is needed to stimulate an ailing economy and help people struggling through the pandemic.

In what could be the final vote on coronavirus relief in Congress before the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be deadlocked over the next steps in responding to a virus that has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States and nearly 900,000 globally.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fails, as expected, to get the 60 votes needed in the 100-member chamber to advance his latest bill, lawmakers will likely focus on wrapping up other work within the next couple weeks so they can return to their home states to campaign for re-election in November.

Earlier this year, Congress quickly passed four major bills providing about $3 trillion to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would provide another $3 trillion in aid. But gridlock has since prevailed.

Some Republican senators expressed doubts on Wednesday that a compromise coronavirus bill would emerge quickly if McConnell’s latest “skinny” bill is rejected on Thursday in the Republican-controlled chamber.

“There’s always some possibility,” said Senator Richard Shelby, adding: “Unless something really broke through, it’s not going to happen.”

The Republican bill would renew a federal unemployment benefit, but at a lower level than Democrats sought. It also would set new protections for businesses against liability lawsuits during the pandemic, which Democrats have labeled a “poison pill.”

An array of other initiatives, including aid to state and local governments, a second round of direct federal payments to households and bailouts for U.S. airlines during the economic downturn were not addressed in the Republican bill and could be considered in a possible post-election session of Congress.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Senate to vote on COVID-19 aid as soon as this week: McConnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate will introduce a new proposal on coronavirus relief legislation on Tuesday and could schedule a vote as soon as this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

He said the new proposal would target “some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues.”

“It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation,” McConnell’s statement said.

Earlier, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said he was hopeful there would be another round of federal COVID-19 stimulus funding before the Nov. 3 presidential election, but signaled no breakthrough in talks with congressional Democrats.

Interviewed on Fox Business Network, Meadows said he hoped legislation put forward by Senate Republicans would provide a basis for a future agreement with Democratic lawmakers and that negotiations were ongoing.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller)

Hopes for fresh round of U.S. coronavirus relief fade as Congress goes home

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prospects for a deal in the U.S. Congress to help Americans suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic dimmed on Friday, with the Senate and House of Representatives in recess and no fresh talks scheduled with President Donald Trump’s negotiators.

After a week that the leaders of the Democratic and the Republican parties spent blaming each other for a breakdown in talks, lawmakers were not due to reconvene until next month, though the leaders of both parties said they could recall their members with 24 hours notice if a deal emerged.

The two sides formally remained about $2 trillion apart, with wide gaps on funding for schools, aid to state and local governments, and unemployment pay. Trump on Thursday added that he opposed any money to help the U.S. Postal Service handle an expected flood of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 elections, though he later said he would not veto a bill that included it.

An impasse over $600-a-week in enhanced unemployment benefits, which expired on July 31, kept financial markets on edge as the Commerce Department reported weaker-than-expected July retail sales growth due to the effects of the spiraling pandemic and the cessation of the enhanced unemployment payments.

The unemployment payments had helped the U.S. economy by buttressing consumer spending, according to Federal Reserve officials and economists. Trump tried to act alone on Saturday with a memorandum proposing an additional $300 per week in unemployment, though economists questioned the effectiveness of the limited measure.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. coronavirus infections approached 5.3 million on Friday, with deaths topping 167,000.

U.S. share prices dropped earlier this week when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disclosed there were no coronavirus talks scheduled. Stocks also weakened on Friday on July retail sales data.

But House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday contended that investors are looking for “surgical” action on coronavirus aid rather than the comprehensive approach sought by Democrats with the $3 trillion-plus Heroes Act the House passed in May.

“If we went forward with what the Democrats asked for in that $3 trillion? I believe the market would drop hard because it would put greater debt on all taxpayers,” McCarthy told CNBC.

Democrats offered to reduce their proposal by $1 trillion during negotiations with White House officials last week. The White House rejected the offer.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published early this week found that Americans blame both parties for the inaction.

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

U.S. House bill targets banks amid fears over China law for Hong Kong

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday that would penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s draconian new national security law imposed on the former British colony of Hong Kong.

China responded by saying the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and warned that it would “resolutely and forcefully resist”.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that protected its freedoms, including an independent legal system, and wide-ranging autonomy. But China on Tuesday introduced sweeping national security legislation for the city, condemned by the United States, Britain and other Western countries.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reprimanded HSBC and other banks on Wednesday for supporting the new law, saying the rights of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers’ bonuses.

Senior British and U.S. politicians criticized HSBC and Standard Chartered last month after the banks backed the new law.

The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

The House measure passed unanimously, reflecting concern in Washington over the erosion the autonomy that allowed Hong Kong to thrive as China’s freest city and an international financial center.

The U.S. Senate passed similar legislation last week, but under congressional rules the bill must return to the Senate and be passed there before being sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unusual appearance at a committee hearing on the situation in Hong Kong to say the security law marked the death of the “one country, two systems” principle.

“The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Thursday the United States “must stop advancing the bill, let alone sign it or implement” it.

“Otherwise China will resolutely and forcefully resist,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the security law was an affront to all nations and Washington would continue to implement Trump’s directive to end the territory’s special status.

The United States has already begun eliminating Hong Kong’s special status, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high-technology products.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler, David Gregorio and Nick Macfie)

Senate opens controversial probe of Trump-Russia investigation

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican allies of President Donald Trump attacked the FBI’s probe of his 2016 presidential campaign on Wednesday, but failed to get a key witness to agree that former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was unfounded.

At the opening hearing in a Republican-led Senate probe that Democrats called politically motivated, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his 2017 decision to appoint Mueller to investigate Russian election interference and numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I still believe it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“All the charges that were filed were legitimate,” he said when asked about cases filed against a half-dozen campaign officials and Trump associates.

The committee is examining the surveillance of Trump campaign officials during the FBI investigation code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to Mueller’s appointment.

Trump and his Republican allies say the president’s campaign was treated unfairly by officials involved, including former FBI Director James Comey.

“This investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, was one of the most corrupt, biased, criminal investigations in the history of the FBI,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, warned that Senate Republicans were trying to help Trump attack both the Russia probe that overshadowed his presidency and Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee who was vice president at the time of Trump’s campaign.

“Congress should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate,” she said.

The Justice Department inspector general found numerous errors in the Crossfire Hurricane probe, including mistakes in seeking surveillance approval, but no political bias.

Rosenstein said he was unaware of problems with warrants allowing surveillance, saying he would not have given his approval had he known at the time.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; editing by Grant McCool, Alistair Bell and Tom Brown)

Next U.S. coronavirus rescue package not too far off, McConnell says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday another stimulus package to deal with the impact of the coronavirus was “not too far off.”

“I think there is a high likelihood we will do another rescue package,” McConnell told Fox News Channel in an interview.

“But we need to be able to measure the impact of what we’ve already done, what we did right, what we did wrong … We’re not quite ready to intelligently lay down the next step, but it’s not too far off.”

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Makini Brice; Editing by Sandra Maler)

U.S. House to pass nearly $500 billion more in coronavirus relief

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of members of the U.S. House of Representatives will gather in Washington on Thursday to pass a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill, bringing the unprecedented total of funds approved for the crisis to nearly $3 trillion.

The measure is expected to be approved with solid bipartisan support in the Democratic-led House, but opposition by some members of both parties forced legislators to return to Washington despite stay-at-home orders intended to control the spread of the virus.

The Republican-led Senate passed the legislation on Tuesday, so approval by the House will send it the White House, where President Donald Trump has promised to quickly sign it into law.

The bill – which would be the fourth passed to address the crisis – provides funds to small businesses and hospitals struggling with the economic toll of a pandemic that has killed more than 45,000 Americans and put more than 22 million out of work.

Congress passed the last coronavirus relief bill, worth more than $2 trillion, in March.

Some Democrats are unhappy that the latest bill omits financial help for state and local governments reeling from the impact of lost revenue. Some Republicans are unhappy that so much government spending has been approved so quickly.

Trump has said he supports more funding for states, and has promised to back it in future legislation after fellow Republicans refused to include it in the current relief package.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested in a radio interview on Wednesday that states could go bankrupt, but said later he did not want states to use federal funds for anything unrelated to the coronavirus.

‘CONGRESS IS ESSENTIAL’

Echoing Trump, many Republicans also want the country – including Congress – to reopen more quickly than in the several more weeks recommended in many states.

“Congress is essential. The American public needs to see that we are working. The American public has to understand that we can do it in a safe manner so states and others can begin to open as well,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday at a news conference outside the Capitol.

House members from both parties said they were willing to risk travel to ensure that the legislation passed, some posting selfies on social media from airplanes on which passengers seemed outnumbered by crew.

“People who feel they can vote should be encouraged to vote. Those that don’t are not being pushed,” said Democratic Representative Pete Aguilar, one of a few party “whips” responsible for making sure floor votes occur without a hitch.

Aguilar spoke to Reuters on Tuesday upon landing in Washington from a “pretty empty” flight from Los Angeles.

The House will also vote on a select committee to study the reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed away, however, from voting on a measure to allow members to cast proxy votes on colleagues’ behalf.

Instead of pushing through the vote-by-proxy measure, Pelosi told Democrats she and McCarthy would have a bipartisan group of House lawmakers review remote voting by proxy.

Congress has not met in regular session since last month, and is in recess until at least May 4 because of the coronavirus.

House Republicans had opposed the proxy vote plan, saying there are already measures in place to ensure Congress can act in an emergency.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. House to pass nearly $500 billion more in coronavirus aid on Thursday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will pass Congress’ latest coronavirus aid bill on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, paving the way for nearly $500 billion more in economic relief amid the pandemic.

Pelosi, in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday, said House lawmakers were ready to then move on to a fifth effort to continue tackling issues swelling from the outbreak that has crushed the nation’s economy and battered its healthcare system.

“We’ll pass it tomorrow in the House,” the California Democrat said.

The bipartisan $484-billion package, which passed the Republican-led U.S. Senate on Tuesday, includes an additional $321 billion for a previously set up small business lending program that quickly saw its funds exhausted.

It also includes $60 billion for a separate emergency disaster loan program – also for small businesses – and $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for national coronavirus testing.

Pelosi said she hopes the newly provided funds will be able to flow to strapped employers and others as soon as possible after U.S. President Trump, who has backed the bill, signs it into law.

“This is absolutely urgent,” she told MSNBC.

She also said a subsequent fifth aid package should also include money to protect U.S. elections and the U.S. Postal Service.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Zieminski)

Historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill passes U.S. House, Trump signs into law

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order on immigration policy in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

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 history – to help cope with the economic downturn inflicted by the intensifying coronavirus pandemic, and President Donald Trump quickly signed it into law.

The massive bill passed the Senate and House of Representatives nearly unanimously. The rare bipartisan action underscored how seriously Republican and Democratic lawmakers are taking the global pandemic that has killed more than 1,500 Americans and shaken the nation’s medical system.

“Our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the worst pandemic in over 100 years,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the close of a three-hour debate before the lower chamber approved the bill. “Whatever we do next, right now we’re going to pass this legislation.”

The massive bill also rushes billions of dollars to medical providers on the front lines of the outbreak.

But the bipartisan spirit seemed to end at the White House. Neither Pelosi nor Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer was invited to Trump’s all-Republican signing ceremony for the bill, aides said.

Their Republican counterparts, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, did attend, along with three Republican House members.

“This will deliver urgently needed relief to our nation’s families, workers and businesses,” Trump said. “I really think in a fairly short period of time … we’ll be stronger than ever.”

In an statement about signing the bill, Trump rejected aspects of a provision in the law setting up an inspector general to audit some loans and investments.

Asked about the statement, Pelosi told MSNBC: “Congress will exercise its oversight and we will have our panel … appointed by the House, in real time to make sure we know where those funds are being expended.”

She called Trump a “dangerous president” who had chosen to ignore the threat of the coronavirus.

“Our next thrust will be about recovery and how we can create good-paying jobs so that we can take the country into the future in a very strong way,” Pelosi said.

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.

To keep Massie’s gambit from delaying the bill’s passage, hundreds of lawmakers from both parties returned to Washington despite the risk of contracting coronavirus. For many, that meant long drives or overnight flights.

One member who spent hours in a car was Republican Representative Greg Pence, the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has put in charge of efforts to handle the coronavirus crisis.

Pence drove the nearly 600 miles (966 km) from his home state, Indiana, to Washington on Thursday. “We can’t afford to wait another minute,” he said on Twitter.

‘THIRD-RATE GRANDSTANDER’

Massie wrote on Twitter that he thought the bill contained too much extraneous spending and gave too much power to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank. His fellow lawmakers overruled his request for a recorded vote.

Trump attacked Massie on Twitter, calling him a “third rate Grandstander” and saying he should be thrown out of the Republican party. “He just wants the publicity,” wrote the president, who last week began pushing for urgent action on coronavirus after long downplaying the risk.

Democratic and Republican leaders had asked members to return to Washington to ensure there would be enough present to head off Massie’s gambit. The session was held under special rules to limit the spread of the disease among members.

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

The Senate, which approved the bill in a unanimous vote late on Wednesday, has adjourned and is not scheduled to return to Washington until April 20.

Democratic and Republican House leaders appeared together at a news conference at the Capitol to celebrate the bill’s passage – an unusual event for a chamber that is normally sharply divided along partisan lines.

“The virus is here. We did not ask for it, we did not invite it. We did not choose it. But with the passing of the bill you will see that we will fight it together, and we will win together,” McCarthy said.

He did not say whether Massie would face any disciplinary measures from the party.

The rescue package is the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress.

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 number of coronavirus cases in the United States exceeded 100,000 on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, the most of any country.

Adding to the misery, the Labor Department 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 Jonathan Oatis, Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates)