WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three days after passing a $2.2 trillion package aimed at easing the heavy economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Congress on Monday was looking at additional steps it might take as the country’s death toll continued to rise.
Democrats who control the House of Representatives were discussing boosting payments to low- and middle-income workers, likely to be among the most vulnerable as companies lay off and furlough millions of workers, as well as eliminating out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus medical treatment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would work with Republicans to craft a bill that also could provide added protections for front-line workers and substantially more support for state and local governments to deal with one of the largest public health crises in U.S. history.
Pelosi, the top U.S. Democrat said she does not expect new legislation to be completed until sometime after Easter, which is on April 12.
“We must do more to help our helpers in this moment of national crisis,” she told reporters on a conference call, adding that delays in producing ventilators and medical protective equipment “will cost lives that should not have to be lost.”
Republican President Donald Trump’s administration signaled that it might seek congressional authorization for more funds to a small business loan program.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, has said he was not sure if it was necessary to augment the first three packages totaling over $2.3 trillion with a fourth bill. A spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
But an aide to the House Appropriations Committee, which must provide funding for some of Washington’s response to the coronavirus, said the Democratic-led panel was in the early stages of work on “phase four” of response legislation.
Nearly 3,000 Americans have died and more than 157,000 have been sickened by the fast-spreading virus that causes COVID-19. It has prompted widespread closures of schools and businesses across the nation and thrown millions out of work.
Other ideas being floated were the opening of a special enrollment period on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and steps to lower health insurance premiums, as well as financial assistance to help laid-off workers keep temporary health insurance.
Congress is trying to respond to the crisis even as its normal operations are interrupted, with most lawmakers advised to stay in their home states. The Senate is in recess until April 20 and the House at least until then.
Last week, several senior House Democrats, along with key Democratic senators, called for Congress to take the next step in coronavirus response by ensuring that treatment and vaccines are free of charge for patients. That would build on legislation enacted earlier this month providing for free coronavirus testing.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told reporters in the U.S. Capitol on Monday said she was concerned about Congress failing to address mental health problems that could stem from the faltering economy, coupled with the impact of self-quarantined people living in close quarters for extended periods.
“I’m reaching out to the various shelters in the state of Alaska to just kind of understand what it is that they’re seeing in the near term,” Murkowski said.
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