The agreement came after days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure and still needed to be finalised in detailed legislative language.

Aid workers leave after responding to a medical call in Seattle. Photo taken on March 25, 2020.
Aid workers leave after responding to a medical call in Seattle. Photo taken on March 25, 2020. (Reuters)

The White House and Senate leaders of both parties struck an agreement late Tuesday on a sweeping $2 trillion measure to aid workers, businesses and a health care system strained by the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

The agreement came after days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure and still needed to be finalised in detailed legislative language.

Top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are done. We have a deal,” Ueland said.

The unprecedented economic rescue package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

The final details had proved nettlesome. One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidised loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

The package was aimed to combat what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had called "the most serous threat to Americans' health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America's jobs and prosperity that we've seen since the Great Depression”.

Yet even as the public-health crisis deepened, President Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.

“We have to go back to work much sooner than people thought,” Trump told a Fox News town hall. He said he'd like to have the country “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter, April 12. But in a White House briefing later, Trump said “our decision will be based on hard facts and data”.

Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections. At the White House briefing, the public-health authorities said it was particularly important for people in the hard-hit New York City metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and for those who have recently left the city to do the same.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said pointedly at the briefing, “no one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City”.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations Tuesday after a tumultuous but productive day Monday. While the two sides had resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained.

“We're trying to finalise all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we're making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said earlier Tuesday.

Ravaged in recent days, stocks rocketed as negotiators signaled a resolution was in sight.

At issue in the Capitol was an unprecedented economic rescue package. A one-time payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child would go directly to the public. A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of Covid-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salary of furloughed workers for four months rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time. Companies would be able to defer payment of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax.

Opening the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell combined optimism about the chances for a deal with frustration at the delays – and a sober view of the crisis at hand.

“The urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone,” he said. On the negotiations, he said “it has taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here”. Still, "we are very close. We are close to a bill that takes our bold Republican framework, integrates further ideas from both parties, and delivers huge progress”.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump urged swift action. “Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today," he tweeted. “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy.”

Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilisation fund, and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations' package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters – including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bank rescue, officials said.

The sense of optimism extended to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, who told CNBC, "I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours". Only Monday, Pelosi introduced a massive Democratic measure with liberal priorities, drawing scorn from Republicans.

Trump in recent days has sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus' march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the US economy.

Even though Trump's administration recommended Americans curtail activities for 15 days, starting just over a week ago, the president said he may soon allow parts of the economy in regions so far less badly hit by the virus to begin reopening.

He continued on that theme Tuesday as he weighed a relaxation of social distancing guidelines after the 15-day period is up. His suggestion that the pandemic could ease and allow a return to normalcy in a mere few weeks is not supported by public health officials or many others in government.

On Tuesday, top defence and military leaders warned department personnel that the virus problems could extend for eight to 10 weeks, or longer. Army Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a defence department town hall meeting that the crisis could even extend into July.

The emerging rescue package is larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Source: AP