U.S. Senate looks to strike deal on massive coronavirus relief package

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate struggled to reach agreement on a far-reaching coronavirus stimulus package on Monday after failing to reach a deal in talks that stretched through the weekend.

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin walks to the meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (not pictured) during negotiations on a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief package on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing government assistance in the middle of a national emergency after the bill stalled on Sunday. Democrats said the package was overly weighted toward corporate interests at the expense of healthcare workers, hospitals and state and local governments.

But Trump administration officials said they were close to an agreement on the package, which they said carried a $2 trillion price tag.

“We knocked off a bunch of things on the list already and we’re closing in on issues,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters on Monday morning after exiting the office of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. He did not give specifics.

The Republican-led Senate is scheduled to reconvene at noon (1600 GMT).

U.S. stocks opened lower on Monday as a brief spurt of optimism from an aggressive credit boost by the Federal Reserve was overshadowed by the still rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Both sides remained confident a deal could still be reached swiftly, and Republican President Donald Trump warned that a rattled American public would take a dim view of an impasse.

“The only reason a deal couldn’t get done is pure politics,” Trump said on Sunday.

The bill is Congress’ third effort to blunt the economic toll of a disease that has killed at least 428 people in the United States and sickened more than 34,000, leading state governors to order nearly a third of the nation’s population to stay at home and putting much business activity on hold.

The measure includes financial aid for regular Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, including airlines.

Before a Senate procedural vote on Sunday, Senate Democratic Leader Schumer said more money was needed for community health centers, nursing homes, masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment and aid to state and local governments.

Republicans said Democrats were seeking to add unrelated provisions, such as expanded tax credits for wind and solar power and increased leverage for labor unions.

Negotiations between the two sides, along with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, went deep into night on Sunday. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Democrats in that chamber would begin crafting an alternative bill should the Senate not reach an agreement.

In a sign of the disease’s spread, Republican Senator Rand Paul on Sunday said he had tested positive. Republican Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney said they would self-quarantine as a result, which will likely keep them off the floor for further votes.

Reporting By Richard Cowan and David Morgan, additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, David Lawder and James Oliphant; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis

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