Donald Trump has signalled a potential change in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, amid warnings of a record plunge in economic activity and unemployment potentially hitting 30%, as a key Senate vote to move forward with a $1.8tn stimulus plan failed for a second time on Monday.
Democrats blocked the coronavirus rescue bill for the second day in a row, as partisan tensions erupted in extraordinary fashion on the Senate floor with lawmakers lashing out angrily over the body’s failure to pass legislation aimed at stanching the pandemic’s impact on the US economy.
“Are you kidding me?” the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, visibly frustrated, demanded from the Senate floor. “This is not a juicy political opportunity. This is a national emergency.”
Democrats say the legislation is tilted in favor of corporations and have vowed to hold it up until they secure stronger protections for workers and restrictions on how businesses will use the government money.
Senators have been working around the clock to negotiate the economic stimulus package, the largest in American history, as the virus spreads across the country, claiming hundreds of lives and wreaking havoc on the US economy. Coronavirus has already breached the Capitol, where at least two congressmen and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Congressman Ben McAdams of Utah, who tested positive last week, was hospitalized on Sunday after his condition worsened.
The extraordinary scene on Capitol Hill came as Trump expressed an openness to scaling back his efforts to combat contagion. Writing in capital letters in a tweet late on Sunday, the US president said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period” – of White House guidelines to enforce physical distancing and other measures which began on 16 March – “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus taskforce, said earlier in the day the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would issue guidance on Monday meant to allow people already exposed to the coronavirus to return to work sooner.
The shift in tone could foreshadow a clash between a White House alarmed by economic paralysis in an election year and public health experts urging caution. The US now has more than 39,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 400 deaths.