Washington, DC – The United States Senate on Tuesday approved legislation worth $484bn to provide funding for a small business jobs programme, hospitals overrun by the coronavirus outbreak, and a national testing impetus to help tamp down the pandemic.
The Senate bill, agreed to in advance by the White House, allocates $25bn for a testing strategy that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats insisted was key to reopening the US economy. The bill calls on the Trump administration to define a strategy to provide nationwide testing and report on that plan to Congress.
The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and will now advance to the House of Representatives, which is expected to vote on it as soon as Thursday.
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“There is a world economic contraction because of the virus and you are seeing demand just plunge,” Larry Kudlow, an economic adviser to US President Donald Trump, told reporters at the White House. “There is some deflation in the air.”
The emergency spending package adds approximately $320bn to a programme designed to help small businesses keep employees on their payrolls until the US economy can be reopened again. The money is in addition to the $350bn approved by Congress in March for small businesses under the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, which was quickly exhausted by overwhelming demand.
A portion of the new funding – $60bn – would be directed through community lenders to under-banked neighbourhoods and rural areas.
More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs since the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to shut down – the biggest job loss since the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933.
The bill includes $75bn for hospitals hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and $60bn for economic disaster assistance, as well as $11bn for states, according to a summary of the legislation.
The testing funds will be directed to “a national strategic testing policy that will focus on increasing testing capacity including testing supplies,” Pelosi and Senator Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement.
The availability of coronavirus testing has been a point of contention between the White House and state governors grappling with the pandemic.
More than four million tests have been administered in the US to date, with some 814,000 cases of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – thus far identified, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. Nearly 44,000 Americans have died from the disease.
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Trump tweeted on Tuesday that he supported a negotiated agreement with Democrats and would sign the bill.
“I urge the Senate and House to pass the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act with additional funding for PPP [personal protective equipment], Hospitals and Testing,” the president said on Twitter, citing the full title of the bill and indicating he would sign the legislation.
Just as the initial financing for US small businesses ran out quickly, the new funding for small businesses is not likely to last long.
Major US banks already have a pipeline of applications for the loans and grants, and are warning customers that not every qualified applicant would receive funds.
Terms of the new funding package were negotiated late into the night on Monday by Pelosi and Schumer with Trump’s representatives, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Democrats had demanded more funding for small businesses that do not have established relationships with commercial banks. “If you don’t know a banker, you were left out,” Schumer said of the earlier programme.
In the negotiations, Republicans won more than the initial $250bn in additional funding for small businesses they had requested last week.
The legislation is the fourth bill Congress has passed to address the coronavirus outbreak. Before today’s bill, the US has committed more than $2.2 trillion in emergency spending, and Democrats and Republicans are already discussing funding priorities for a fifth bill.
The president tweeted on Tuesday that he wants to provide a financial lifeline for the US oil and gas industry.
We will never let the great U.S. Oil & Gas Industry down. I have instructed the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Treasury to formulate a plan which will make funds available so that these very important companies and jobs will be secured long into the future!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2020
Democrats said they were “disappointed” that more funding was not included for states and cities whose budgets have been decimated by the economic slowdown, but said they were “pleased” Trump committed to addressing that need in the next round of legislation.
The next bill must be “transformative and far-reaching” and aimed at “getting Americans back to work” by “ensuring economic security” and “putting health and safety” first, Schumer and Pelosi said.
Schumer said the bill would need to be “similar in scope” to the $2.2 trillion measure previously passed by Congress.
Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, expressed concern that the massive new spending, which will be financed by government bond sales, will burden future generations with too much debt.
The US “can manage this disease without the draconian lockdown of the economy” and should quit “printing bailout cash”, Paul said in remarks to the Senate.
Senate approves subpoenas of Obama officials in Russian collusion probe
A Senate committee approved subpoenas Thursday for more than 50 mostly Obama-era officials in a dramatic escalation of the investigation into origins of the Trump-Russia collusion probe. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is wielding the subpoena power, said the move will finally put on the hot seat top officials,…
A Senate committee approved subpoenas Thursday for more than 50 mostly Obama-era officials in a dramatic escalation of the investigation into origins of the Trump-Russia collusion probe.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is wielding the subpoena power, said the move will finally put on the hot seat top officials, including former FBI Director James B. Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
“Comey and McCabe and that whole crowd — their day is coming,” Mr. Graham said.
Others targeted for subpoenas are former National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper, former CIA chief John O. Brennan, former Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and FBI officials Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, James Baker and Bill Priestap.
The panel’s politically charged inquiry has the potential to rewrite the Russia collusion narrative that until recently dominated Washington and colored voters’ views of the Justice Department and the Obama administration, in which presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden served as vice president.
Democrats said the investigation is a fishing expedition intended to smear President Trump’s political enemies as the campaign season heats up.
“Never has a chairman devoted the full weight of this committee’s resources to pursue a wholly partisan investigation after being prompted by a presidential campaign,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and a panel member.
The committee’s probe also is a response to public pressure from Trump supporters who are frustrated with the lack of accountability for top officials at the FBI and Justice Department who publicly pushed the unsubstantiated collusion accusations.
Accusations of collusion with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election dogged Mr. Trump since he took office and fueled Democrats’ charges that he occupies the Oval Office illegitimately.
Most of Mr. Trump’s term was conducted under the cloud of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which failed to dig up evidence of collusion or charge any Trump allies on charges related to conspiring with Russia.
Mr. Trump calls the Russia probe a “hoax.”
His supporters think it was a political hit job orchestrated by Democrats with the help of a deep state.
In a party-line vote, Republicans on the panel granted Mr. Graham the authority to subpoena individuals for documents and testimony about the origins of the Russia probe.
Mr. Graham has the power to subpoena “any current or former executive branch official or employee involved in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” the name of the FBI’s investigation into alleged ties to the Trump campaign and Russia.
He also has the authority to subpoena individuals involved in the dissemination of a report by former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a salacious but unverified opposition-research dossier against Mr. Trump funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Fusion GPS founder Glenn R. Simpson and Nellie Ohr are expected to receive subpoenas for their roles in commissioning and distributing the dossier.
Republicans contend that mounting evidence suggests the Russia probe was not on the up and up.
A report last year by the Justice Department inspector general found multiple errors and omissions in the FBI’s application for a court order to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The omissions, which included potentially exculpatory evidence, have raised questions about whether Mr. Page was a political target by anti-Trump officials in the FBI before and after the election.
Mr. Graham also wants to probe the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The Justice Department moved this year to dismiss the case after spending roughly two years prosecuting it. The department said the FBI did not have a sufficient basis to interview Flynn because it sought to close the case after failing to uncover wrongdoing.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, accused Mr. Graham of going over “ground that has already been covered.”
In a bid to upend the subpoena vote, Democrats sought to add a series of amendments to compel testimony and documents from Mr. Trump’s allies.
Among the individuals Democrats want to be subpoenaed are former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and Flynn.
The amendments were defeated easily in a series of party-line votes.
“The fact that you are turning down every single relevant witness tells us and tells the world this is an irrelevant investigation,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
Mr. Graham clapped back that Trump associates were heavily scrutinized in the Mueller probe.
“I don’t understand why you would want to do the Mueller investigation all over again after we’ve spent 2½ years and $25 million doing it,” said Mr. Graham. “I’m sorry it didn’t turn out the way people liked, but it is behind us. Now we are going to look at what happened and the misconduct involved and hold people accountable.”
Under committee rules, Mr. Graham cannot issue a subpoena unilaterally. The committee chairman can issue a subpoena only with the consent of the ranking member or a committee vote.
Democrats said the granting of subpoena power to one person violated the committee’s bipartisan spirit. They accused Mr. Graham of trying to grant himself “unilateral subpoena authority.”
“The resolution would give the chair sole authority to issue literally hundreds of subpoenas without any agreement from the ranking member of any committee to vote on any specific subpoena,” said Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted last week to authorize subpoenas from individuals associated with the Russia probe. It is not clear how the two committees will work together with similar investigations and subpoenas.
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China approves two coronavirus vaccines for human trials
China has approved early-stage human tests for two experimental coronavirus vaccines as it battles to contain imported cases and prevent a second wave of COVID-19. The experimental vaccines are being developed by a Beijing-based unit of Sinovac Biotech and by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, an affiliate of state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group, state news…
China has approved early-stage human tests for two experimental coronavirus vaccines as it battles to contain imported cases and prevent a second wave of COVID-19.
The experimental vaccines are being developed by a Beijing-based unit of Sinovac Biotech and by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, an affiliate of state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group, state news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
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Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, reporting from Hong Kong, said China’s National Health Commission also confirmed the trials will go ahead.
In March, Beijing gave the green light to another clinical trial for a coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by the military-backed Academy of Military Medical Sciences and biotech firm CanSino Bio, shortly after US drug developer Moderna said it had begun human tests for their vaccine with the US National Institutes of Health.
“We can confirm now that three particular vaccines are being tested in China, and the National Health Commission has said it will have to clear a number of conditions before they can enable mass production of the vaccines globally,” said Clarke.
As of Tuesday, China reported 82,249 coronavirus cases and 3,341 deaths. There were no fatalities over the past 24 hours.
‘Very bold decision’
Scientists around the world are racing against time to develop a vaccine for coronavirus, which has killed more than 119,000 people and infected more than 1.9 million globally.
The first approved vaccine in China has started its second phase of the trial, Clarke reported.
“A total of 500 people signed up to volunteer for that in the first phase, which looked at the safety of this vaccine, and the second phase has now introduced a placebo control group,” she said.
Good news! China approved clinical trials for two types of inactivated #vaccines for #COVID_19 on Tuesday. pic.twitter.com/4nx41wiN20
— China Daily (@ChinaDaily) April 14, 2020
But even as hope for a cure is raised, John Nicholls, clinical professor of Pathology at the University of Hong Kong, said: “Vaccines can’t be rushed”.
His team was one of the first outside mainland China to reproduce the virus in a laboratory for research.
“Normally with vaccines you start off with small animals and then move to primates and then to the humans,” Nicholls told Al Jazeera. “It seems that with this one they have gone straight to the humans, which is a very bold decision.
“Most of the mortality in this disease is in the elderly, so the best thing would be to actually see what the anti-body response is in the elderly rather than the young,” he added.
Meanwhile, Russia has become China’s largest source of imported cases, with a total of 409 infections originating in the northern neighbour.
Of the 89 new cases reported in mainland China on Monday, 79 were imported coronavirus cases in China’s northeastern border province of Heilongjiang, all Chinese citizens travelling home from Russia, according to state media.
At a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, China’s coronavirus taskforce decided to deploy more health resources on its borders.
It said it would build hospitals and establish isolation points in border regions, and would also strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries.
US Congress approves $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package
Washington, DC – US President Donald Trump on Friday signed a massive $2.2 trillion economic rescue bill to help lift the economy and address the coronavirus pandemic. His signature came after the Democratic-led House of Representatives approved the sweeping package by a voice vote earlier in the day, despite a procedural challenge from Republican Representative…
Washington, DC – US President Donald Trump on Friday signed a massive $2.2 trillion economic rescue bill to help lift the economy and address the coronavirus pandemic.
His signature came after the Democratic-led House of Representatives approved the sweeping package by a voice vote earlier in the day, despite a procedural challenge from Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who wanted a formal recorded vote.
The bill had passed the Republican-led Senate on Wednesday with overwhelming bipartisan support in a 96-0 vote.
“We are taking care of our people,” President Donald Trump said this week, referring to the bill.
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The bill is the largest rescue package in US history. Addressing the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the legislation offers direct payments to most Americans and special financing for big and small businesses.
“This is a pandemic that we haven’t even seen for over 100 years in our country. It’s really such a tragedy. So we had to take important action that puts families first and workers first and that’s what we did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier this week.
Pelosi said Congress would likely take up additional legislation in coming weeks to respond to the evolving challenge of the coronavirus, which has so far infected more than 85,000 people and killed more than 1,300 people across the US.
Pelosi has been instrumental in leading establishment Democratic efforts in Congress [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]
“Next, we’ll go from emergency mitigation, to recovery,” Pelosi said.
Federal agency leaders scrambled this week to develop plans to implement the new legislation, anticipating urgent demands for help from millions of people and businesses.
The coronavirus crisis has left US businesses flattened by lost business and state-mandated closures. An estimated three million small businesses will need special financing to survive and more than three million workers lost their jobs in just the last week.
As of Friday, there were more questions than answers about how the federal funding will work. Agencies cannot offer authoritative guidance on the new programmes until Trump signs the bill into law.
‘Fails to address states’ needs’
New York, which has recorded more than 44,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, has been hit the hardest in terms of the scale and effects of the virus.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, warned on Thursday the newly approved federal funding for states would not be enough to cover the need in New York, where hospitals are already being overwhelmed with patients.
“The congressional action, in my opinion, simply failed to address the governmental need,” Cuomo told reporters at a news conference earlier this week.
New York estimates it will lose $10bn to $15bn in revenue because of the economic slowdown. The state would receive $5bn from the federal rescue bill passed by Congress but only for COVID-19 response, not lost revenue, Cuomo said.
State and city authorities around the US were working this week to build capacity at hospitals with more beds and respirators.
Meanwhile, Dr Deborah Birx, the Trump White House coronavirus response coordinator, said on Thursday incoming data from South Korea and Italy suggests projections of fatalities in the US may be less catastrophic than previously thought.
New York officials warn hospitals could be overwhelmed [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]
White House officials are discussing how to ease travel and business restrictions for areas of the country less affected by the virus.
“What we are trying to do is utilise a laser-guided approach rather than a horizontal approach,” Birx said.
Trump has said he wants to reopen the country for business by April 12, despite warnings from health experts, including some within his administration, who say the US has yet to experience the worst of the pandemic.
What is in the legislation?
The Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-profit group that tracks US budget deficits, scored total spending under the rescue bill at approximately $2.3 trillion.
Here is a look at where most of the money will go, according to the budget watchdog:
$510bn – Lending for large businesses, governments
$377bn – Small business loans and grants
$290bn – Direct payments to most Americans
$280bn – Cuts to business taxes
$260bn – Expanded unemployment benefits
$180bn – Funding for hospitals, healthcare
$150bn – Support for state, local governments
$72bn – Transportation, public transit
$42bn – Social safety net, food and housing
$45bnn – Federal emergency disaster assistance
$32bn – Increased spending on education
$19bn – Reductions in individual taxes
$25bn – Other spending
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