White House, Democrats 'close' to deal to aid virus-hit businesses

By: AFP      Published: 09:07 PM, 19 Apr, 2020
White House, Democrats 'close' to deal to aid virus-hit businesses

The White House and congressional Democrats said Sunday they could reach an agreement soon on expanding funds to small businesses devastated by the coronavirus, with Democrats hoping to add money for hospitals, testing and state governments.

"We're very close," Vice President Mike Pence told talkshow Fox News Sunday about negotiations on replenishing the Paycheck Protection Program whose entire $349 billion funding was exhausted by last Thursday.

"We're going to work to expand that so that no one working in a small business in America would have to worry about missing a paycheck."

President Donald Trump has insisted his administration will do right by millions of American families and businesses ravaged by a pandemic that has infected 735,000 people in the United States, 39,000 of whom have died.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed hope a deal could be reached and passed by Congress in the coming days.

"I think we're very close to a deal today," Mnuchin told CNN's State of the Union, as he put forward a new target number of $300 billion, beyond the $250 billion under discussion last week.

Mnuchin said the White House has also agreed to add $75 billion to hospitals and first responders, and $25 billion to ramp up virus testing -- clear wins for Democrats.

Critics have savaged the administration for lagging on testing efforts and say testing should be massively expanded.

Mnuchin, however, said Trump wants additional funding for state and local governments -- stretched to the limit as they battle the pandemic -- included in a broader bill to come later, not in the interim package.

Democrats joined the optimism about the pace of negotiations.

"We're on a very good path" and a deal could be reached "soon," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Fox.

That marked a notable quickening of her timeline from last week, when she suggested the interim bill could clear Congress "before the end of the month."

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer was more direct, saying "I'm very hopeful we could come to an agreement tonight or early tomorrow morning."

US officials said Friday that the massive business loan program has aided 1.6 million enterprises to date.

Democrats are stressing that some money in the interim package be set aside for businesses in rural and minority areas where there is often less access to banks.