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News Brief: Stimulus Measure, Coronavirus Facts, N.Y. COVID-19 Cases


What is the best way for the United States to spend close to $2 trillion?


Over the weekend, Congress tried to answer that question. Lawmakers are negotiating over this gigantic measure to help the economy endure the hit that it's taking because of the pandemic. So Senate Republicans insisted yesterday that they know what they want, but then Senate Democrats blocked a vote to proceed on a bill. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is talking about introducing her own bill.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following all of this. Good morning, Sue.


INSKEEP: What is the difference about what's been happening in the last 12, 14 hours?

DAVIS: Well, it's important to understand yesterday that the Senate didn't fail on a bill. It was a procedural vote, one of those necessary hurdles in the Senate to move forward on legislation. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to get it out of the way to keep it moving to get to a final bill in the next coming days. Democrats objected to it, and this was infuriating to Republicans. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.


MITCH MCCONNELL: The American people are watching this spectacle. So the notion that we have time to play games here with the American economy and the American people is utterly absurd.

DAVIS: Democrats objected to it, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made clear he does believe they will ultimately get a deal.

INSKEEP: Well, what do they disagree about in terms of the actual substantive ideas for how to spend almost $2 trillion?

DAVIS: Well, first, they do agree on the main pillars of this bill, which essentially would give small business loan guarantees and direct cash payments to Americans - excuse me. But what they disagree about is - a central part of it is Democrats want more money - more money for hospitals, more money for workers who've been unemployed. And Democrats want more accountability for the money that's going to be in the bill to help companies, corporations. As Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to NPR yesterday about those Democratic concerns, this is what she said.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I don't think anyone thinks that the airline industry, for example, is to blame for what has happened. But on the other hand, if they want to get taxpayer dollars, then we need to know that those taxpayer dollars are going to be spent in a way that helps the economy generally instead of a handful of executives and investors.

DAVIS: The problem isn't necessarily the money itself; it's the disclosure of that money. The way the current draft of the bill is written, it would give the Treasury secretary virtually all discretion on how those money - that money would be spent. And Congress wants a little bit more disclosure, and they want to know how it's going to be spent more, too.

INSKEEP: And they also want restrictions on companies. In fact, the president himself has said he would not like companies to take this money and buy back stock rather than keep workers employed, for example, once it's...

DAVIS: Right. They want the money to be spent to keep workers employed - exactly.

INSKEEP: Now, there is a little bit of pressure on lawmakers here - right? - because some of them are getting sick.

DAVIS: They are. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, was the first Senator - there's been two House members - but the first senator to announce that he tested positive for the virus. That has also created, aside from very obvious health concerns on Capitol Hill, legislative concerns. His diagnosis has led to two other senators - Mitt Romney of Utah and Mike Lee of Utah - to self-quarantine. That's on top of two additional Republican senators already under self-quarantine. So the math of that is Mitch McConnell is now down five Republican votes, putting even more pressure on him to negotiate a deal with Democrats because he simply is going to need more of their votes to do that.

INSKEEP: I think lawmakers had been hoping to get a final vote as early as today. But I guess that's not going to happen, right?

DAVIS: No. And they were never going to get a final bill done today. They wanted to get through one of these procedural hurdles. If they get a deal - if they announce a deal, that will be very reassuring to the markets, to the American people. They still probably would need a couple days to write that bill and to get it over to the House.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks for the update.

DAVIS: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.

Now, President Trump is activating the National Guard in California and in New York state and in Washington state.

KING: Right. Those are the three states that have the most cases of coronavirus. The use of the National Guard is only one step in what looks like it's going to be a very long effort to limit the effect of the pandemic across the country.

INSKEEP: And NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering those efforts. Franco, good morning.


INSKEEP: Why use the National Guard?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president says activating the National Guard would help free up state resources to protect those who need it the most without the states having to worry about extra costs and liability. As noted, it's part of this larger added effort to help the hardest-hit areas in the country.

President Trump also said he was going to dispatch the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy to Los Angeles and another ship, the Comfort, to New York to provide more hospital space to those areas. President Trump said, as well, that the three states would also receive a large influx of masks, respirators and gowns and other supplies they desperately need.

INSKEEP: OK. You just touched on some essential things here. And you realize that a big part of the federal response in a crisis like this is just logistics - getting first responders and emergency workers and so forth the basic stuff they need, like those masks and respirators and gowns and face shields. And I'm thinking about World War II. In World War II, the government organized industry to produce lots of tanks, for example. Now they need this medical equipment. So what is the administration doing? And is that enough?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, if you ask many governors, they say the administration is not doing enough, particularly Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. He wants drastic action. He wants the federal government to invoke what's called the Defense Production Act and order those manufacturers to supply this medical equipment, including masks, which are in short supply.


ANDREW CUOMO: Time matters, minutes count, and this is literally a matter of life and death. We get these facilities up, we get the supplies, we will save lives. If we don't, we will lose lives.

ORDOÑEZ: But the president is actually pushing back. He says he doesn't want to invoke the Defense Production Act, which he says is akin to nationalizing business, and he actually pointed to Venezuela as an example. But state governments say they need the might of the federal government to marshal American industry and also distribute supplies fairly to states who are competing over these resources.

INSKEEP: Another big job of the president, I guess, is to just reassure and hearten Americans and give them an idea of what's going on. I gather he tried a do-over at that yesterday.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. At one point, he really did really go right at that issue. On Friday, he was asked about what he had to say to scared Americans. And he lashed out at the reporter who asked the question. But yesterday, he addressed it differently. Unprompted, he noted that these are challenging times. And he said that no American is alone as long as the country is united. It was a much different tone.

At the same time, he also bounced across a wide spectrum of ideas and said things that we've come to expect, like rich guys, it's hard to run for president. He mocked Senator Mitt Romney for having to self-quarantine. But he also praised New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

Now, Franco mentioned New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. New York is the center of the outbreak in the United States.

KING: That's right. And New Yorkers have been ordered to stay home to keep the virus from spreading. So how are they coping with this?

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk to NPR's Quil Lawrence, who lives in New York City. Hey there, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How have people heeded the order to stay home in New York, where so many of you live in very small apartments?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Well, I mean, you can see it in classic sort of views, like Times Square, which is still lit up even in the middle of the night. But it's completely deserted. Restaurants are doing a lot of takeout, but they're shut. Still, over the weekend, it was sort of sunny and springlike. And people were out in Brooklyn's Prospect Park - probably too many people. I spoke with Mike Wallach (ph) and Gina Lachlan (ph). They're grandparents, so they're part of a vulnerable group.

MIKE WALLACH: Oh, well, we thought we would kind of take a stroll in the park. But it's kind of too crowded, so we're heading back home.

GINA LACHLAN: Yeah. We're kind of surprised at the number of people who are out, so we're heading back home. Like, we are literally staying in the house and going to the grocery store once a day.

LAWRENCE: While I was there in the park interviewing people, I saw the governor's motorcade parked across Flatbush Avenue from me. And apparently, he didn't like the crowds that he saw. He was ordering the city to crack down further on people gathering. There are still people using the subways, essential businesses. But there are a lot of people who can't stay home because they're homeless. I met a man named Romeo Santana (ph) who was panhandling near one of the hospitals.

ROMEO SANTANA: I think my best option for me is to just be careful about things I touch and the way I actually interact with people physically.

LAWRENCE: So there are a lot of people in New York City who are in a tough spot. And as the virus ramps up and the economy grinds down, there are going to be more people vulnerable.

INSKEEP: Quil, I want to make sure I understand the rules in New York state and in New York City. Is it against the rules to be out in a park if you manage to stay away from people? Is that something that you're not supposed to be doing?

LAWRENCE: No. Everyone's been stressing that you can go out and have sort of solitary exercise. But clearly, the number of people out, the governor found alarming. And he was saying that he just didn't think people were taking this seriously enough. He's proposed maybe even closing some streets so people do have more space to gather not so tightly packed together.

INSKEEP: Well, let's figure out how serious it is in New York state. How many confirmed cases are there in that one state?

LAWRENCE: I mean, whatever number I tell you is going to be obsolete by the time this program is over. But it's over 15,000 confirmed cases. It's increasing 50% to 100% every couple of days. So the curve really isn't flattening yet. Hopefully, these measures will cause it to flatten. They're talking about bringing four temporary hospitals online, a lot of other measures that the governor says are essential.

INSKEEP: Temporary hospitals - the U.S. government will help with this, the Army?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. The National Guard's been activated. The Army Corps of Engineers is setting up four of these sites around the city, one in the city at the Javits Center.

INSKEEP: Quil, thanks for the update, and I hope you do find a way to get some fresh air.

LAWRENCE: (Laughter) Thanks a lot, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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