An array of lawmakers and President Donald Trump have started to acknowledge the need for another coronavirus relief bill, even after they passed the largest emergency spending plan in U.S. history last week.
Officials will face a tough task in agreeing on how exactly to rein in the damage from the outbreak and spark recovery from an economic freefall. As they look to the fourth phase of the government pandemic response, members of Congress and the Trump administration have offered diverging views on just what Washington needs to do — and how quickly.
The full Congress will not return to Washington before April 20. In the meantime, the extent of the ruin COVID-19 causes to American health and financial well being will shape when Congress acts and which issues it tries to tackle.
As the disease spreads — the U.S. now has more than 200,000 cases — the Trump administration projects it could kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans. The March employment report set for release Friday is expected to show staggering job losses after a record 3.3 million people filed unemployment claims.
Congress tried to address the health and economic toll in its $2 trillion stimulus package, passing more hospital funding, direct payments to Americans, enhanced unemployment insurance and small business loans designed to keep employees on payroll. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to move quickly to the next stage.
The California Democrat said Wednesday that she hopes to push ahead with an infrastructure plan "shortly" after the House returns, calling it "essential because of the historic nature of the health and economic emergency that we are confronting." The president's call for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill to create jobs as part of the coronavirus response boosted Democrats' hopes of addressing the issue after false starts in recent years.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC he has had "ongoing discussions" with congressional Democrats about infrastructure. Even so, it is unclear if the major parties in Congress can get over one of the past hurdles in the way of an infrastructure deal: funding. Democrats have generally been more comfortable than Republicans with spending huge chunks of taxpayer money on overhauling U.S. transportation and utilities.
While Pelosi wants to act right after Congress returns — she said her motto is "resting is rusting" — her counterpart in the Senate appears wary of passing another bill on the heels of the mammoth stimulus plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he wants to see how effective the latest relief legislation is before he commits to a fourth emergency spending package.
"So let's see how things are going, and respond accordingly," he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. "But let's not, I'm not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass."
One of the provisions the Kentucky Republican appears to reference is a national vote-by-mail requirement, which House Democrats put in a $2.5 trillion stimulus bill separate from the one that originated in the Senate and became law. Pelosi, who said Wednesday she hopes the next coronavirus legislation will include vote by mail, calls it a method to ensure Americans can vote safely during the pandemic.
Trump previously called the House bill "crazy," saying it included "levels of voting that if you'd ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."
In a statement Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also decried what he called "continued attempts to force partisan objectives into our response." He pointed to the voting provisions in the House bill, along with proposals related to airplanes' carbon footprint and renewable energy credits.
One GOP lawmaker who has called for another relief bill argued the legislation should start in the Senate rather than the House. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told CNBC on Wednesday that he thinks the next proposal would move more quickly in a bipartisan way through the Senate.
"It should include infrastructure, the president is very supportive of that, it should also include this issue of bringing back manufacturing and our supply chains back to this country," he told "Squawk Box." "That's a very bipartisan issue right now."
Among other potential provisions in the next response bill, Democrats have called for more grants for states to combat the pandemic. Some lawmakers from states that get significant revenue from cruise tours want to clarify the companies' eligibility for government aid (many are not incorporated in the U.S.). Many Democrats would oppose more taxpayer relief for corporations.
In addition, a package could also include funding for the oversight function outlined in the previous bill, which was left out in error, a senior congressional aide told CNBC.
Trump administration officials told CNBC they are not currently planning for a fourth emergency proposal as they try to implement the previously passed laws. The White House has to oversee the distribution of $300 billion in direct payments, $350 billion in small business loans and $500 billion in loans and grants to businesses, states and municipalities.
Underscoring the pressure the White House faces to quickly implement the bill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote to the Labor Department on Wednesday urging it to do everything possible to help states expedite the new unemployment benefits. Many Americans are scrambling to pay their bills in the new month after losing jobs.
Schumer has also said he will monitor any White House attempts to interfere with an inspector general appointed to oversee the $500 billion fund.
Even as he undertakes the gargantuan task of executing the $2 trillion bill, Mnuchin said "we expect there will be more bills" to address the crisis. He pointed to one proposal he thinks could get bipartisan support: more money for small business loans if the initial pool of $350 billion goes quickly.
— CNBC's Lauren Hirsch, Eamon Javers and Kayla Tausche contributed to this report