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Senate approves coronavirus legislation as Trump harnesses wartime powers

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic alongside Vice President Mike Pence and Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, during in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, March 18, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM/TNS)

The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure to provide sick leave and free corornavirus testing to Americans, as President Donald Trump invoked wartime powers to boost manufacturing of medical equipment needed to fight the pandemic and the U.S. restricted its border with Canada.

The legislation — approved by the House on Saturday — passed 90-8 in the Senate and next goes to Trump’s desk for his signature. Congress is already working on the next emergency package, expected to top $1 trillion, including aid to struggling industries and individual checks to most taxpayers.

By signing a declaration under the Defense Production Act, Trump can direct private industries to churn out protective masks and gowns for hospital workers, as well as ventilators needed to keep critically ill patients alive. Health care officials have repeatedly warned that stockpiles of medical equipment could be wiped out as coronavirus infections spiral.

“There’s never been an instance like this where no matter what you have, it’s not enough,” Trump said at the White House, where he’s been leading daily briefings on the pandemic.

Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, Coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, as they listen to President Donald Trump deliver remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, March 18, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM/TNS)

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With the stock market continuing to slide and layoffs mounting, the president is expected to quickly sign the legislation, which enacts paid sick leave for more American workers, helping people stay home rather than risk spreading the virus. The measure, the second one passed by Congress in response to the pandemic, also boosts funding for food programs and unemployment benefits.

In addition, Trump moved to harden the country’s borders, reaching an agreement to stop all non-essential travel with Canada and increasing restrictions on migrants entering from Mexico. He also ordered a halt to evictions from public housing for those affected by the coronavirus, and on foreclosures for homeowners who have mortgages covered by the Federal Housing Administration.

The cascading announcements came as the Trump administration faces waves of criticism for moving too slowly and timidly to blunt the pandemic, which originated in China and has since spread across the globe. There are more than 6,500 confirmed infections and 115 deaths in the United States.

The centerpiece of Congress’ third stimulus package would be two rounds of $250 billion payments to Americans to help make up for lost wages and provide some spending money, according to a Treasury Department outline obtained by The Washingtion Post and others.

It’s unclear who would be eligible for payments or how much they would be, but some Republican senators have floated $1,000 as a starting point.

The Treasury outline includes $300 billion in loans for businesses with 500 employees or less. Companies would be eligible as long as they continue paying employees for eight weeks.

The federal government would also provide $50 billion in loans to the airline industry, which has seen its business disrupted even more than after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and another $150 billion for other “severely distressed sectors.”

“We are looking at different numbers,” Trump said at the White House briefing. “Everyone seems to want to go big.”

The numbers are comparable to legislation approved during the Great Recession, when Congress approved a $700 billion bailout for banks in 2008 and the $800 billion stimulus package in 2009.

Even as Washington scrambles to tackle the coronavirus, the economy continued lurching toward a recession. The stock market has lost all gains since Trump took office more than three years ago, and the country’s three largest automakers reportedly decided to pause construction of new vehicles. Restaurants, bookstores and coffee shops are shedding workers as customers followed the government’s advice to stay home to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and more layoffs were expected.

“There is something much worse about this crisis that we face. I have never sensed a greater sense of uncertainty, a greater fear of the future, of the unknown,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “We don’t know how long this crisis will last.”

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.