WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday compared President Donald Trump to “the man who refuses to ask for directions” as she pleaded with the White House to seek input from the nation's scientific leaders to reverse the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The Democratic speaker urged Trump to invoke the full power of the Defense Production Act to boost much-needed supplies for coronavirus testing and treatment as a weary nation battles the outbreak.
“Mr. President, admit it, you’ve gone down the wrong path, ask for directions, ask for directions from the scientists,” Pelosi said at the Capitol.
Tensions are rising as Congress considers the next virus relief package with no apparent endgame in sight to a pandemic that now threatens longer-term economic and societal turmoil that first envisioned.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is poised to release the GOP’s $1 trillion package as soon as next week. That plan is a counteroffer to the sweeping $3 trillion proposal that House Democrats approved in May, before the latest spike in coronavirus cases and hot spots.
On Thursday, McConnell's proposed liability protection, the centerpiece of the GOP effort, was sent to the White House for review. It's a five-year shield for “schools, colleges, charities, and businesses that follow public-health guidelines, and for frontline medical workers,” according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.
It also “limits liability for new products, such as types of PPE, if they meet certain FDA requirements,” according to draft.
Months after McConnell hit “pause” on new spending, as he puts it, Republicans now face a potentially more dire situation. They had hoped the pandemic would ease and the economy would recover. Instead, coronavirus cases are spiking, states are resuming shutdowns and parents are wondering if it's safe to send children back to school.
“There were some that hoped this would go away sooner than it has,” McConnell said Wednesday during a hospital visit in Kentucky, where he urged people to wear masks and social distance.
"The straight talk here that everyone needs to understand: This is not going away," McConnell said.
This would be the fifth virus rescue bill since spring. Such an unprecedented federal intervention has occurred as Congress races to provide a comprehensive national strategy to try to bring the pandemic under control.
Polling shows Americans are increasingly uneasy over Trump’s handling of the outbreak. Members of Congress are hoping to ease the health and economic crises before many of them, like the president, face voters in November.
McConnell is straining to keep rising COVID costs down as Republicans revolt over deficit spending. But Pelosi's $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill, once dismissed by Republicans as a liberal wish list, now seems not as far-fetched.
“People are dying,” Pelosi said. “If we don’t invest the money now, it will be much worse.”
Both the House and Senate have similar priorities: help schools reopen, provide unemployment benefits for jobless Americans and ramp up testing, treatment and a vaccine. But they differ broadly in size and scope.
House Democrats provided $100 billion for school reopenings in an education stabilization fund that Senate Democrats say could swell to $430 billion to include more money for child care, colleges and other needs. Senate Republicans are floating the idea of $50 billion to $75 billion in education funds.
The two sides are divided over how much aid to send to cash-strapped states and cities that are pleading for money and to out-of-work Americans at a time of record unemployment.
Republicans want to reduce the $600 weekly unemployment boost that expires at the end of the month to a few hundred dollars a month.
Instead, Republicans want the liability shield to stem COVID-related lawsuits and they are eyeing tax breaks for employers who upgrade workplaces with safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Democrats want to keep the $600 jobless benefit boost. Pelosi’s bill would send nearly $1 trillion to states and cities to shore up budgets and avoid layoffs of municipal workers.
Trump's advisers are split, with some pushing for even more robust spending on education, even if it riles Republicans intent on keeping record-setting deficits down. Some conservatives want the education dollars tied to school reopenings or even sent directly to parents, in the form of a school voucher, for example.
To keep costs down, Republicans are considering redirecting some already approved funds from the popular Paycheck Protection Program of small business loans for a revamped business loan program.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer suggests shifting $350 billion in untapped Treasury Department virus funds to help Black Americans and other people of color during the pandemic and beyond.
One uncertainty is how to improve the nation's poor performance on virus testing.
Both Republicans and Democrats complain that $25 billion in testing funds that were approved in April remain unspent even as certain parts of the country have testing shortages and widespread delays in results.
Pelosi's bill provides $75 billion more for virus testing and contact tracing, with directives to the federal government to set up a national testing program.
Republicans have remained largely silent on how much testing money would be made available in the new bill. McConnell said Wednesday the government is “pursuing testing, treatment and vaccines like the country pursued the Manhattan Project in World War II.”