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Congress eyes billions in funding to fight coronavirus

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Capitol Hill negotiations on emergency spending to combat the coronavirus outbreak are likely to produce a bill that’s double or even triple the $2.5 billion plan requested by President Donald Trump just days ago.

Lawmakers and aides involved in the talks say they are proceeding well and are likely to produce legislation in the $6 billion to $8 billion range. Both the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-held Senate are eager to complete work on the measure in the next two weeks.

All sides say the $2.5 billion White House coronavirus plan — of which only $1.25 billion would be new funding — is inadequate. And Trump himself appears to be in no mood to pick a fight on the issue with Democratic rivals like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York.

“Congress is willing to give us much more than we’re even asking for,” Trump said Wednesday. “That’s nice for a change.”

On Thursday, Schumer and Pelosi weighed in with a roster of demands, including interest-free loans for small businesses harmed by the outbreak and reimbursements for state and local governments for costs incurred in fighting the coronavirus.

Schumer grabbed some headlines Wednesday by outlining an $8.5 billion plan to fight coronavirus, even as he threw his support behind bipartisan talks by the top members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

“He’s prioritized fighting with the White House over simply letting the appropriators do their work,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “‘Fortunately, it appears we will have an opportunity to put this cynicism behind us quickly and move forward in a unified way.”

With both House and Senate taking a recess in two weeks, and U.S. health officials warning the public to prepare for the spread of the virus, lawmakers are under pressure to approve the funding quickly. They also face a looming March 15 deadline for expiring electronic surveillance provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that are key tools in the war against terrorism. There is speculation that McConnell might pair the two issues together for convenience sake, but pairing the bills would prove controversial.

The rush to pass funding to battle coronavirus is far different from the protracted effort four years ago against the Zika virus, which can cause grave birth defects. Republicans then in control of the House dragged their feet for months before a $1.1 billion bipartisan package passed as Congress adjourned for the 2016 elections.

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