March 16, 2020 / 5:43 PM / 14 days ago

All eyes on U.S. Senate as it mulls coronavirus economic stimulus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Under pressure to quickly pass legislation helping American families cope with the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak, U.S. Senate leaders on Monday were counting votes in the deeply divided 100-member chamber before attempting to act this week.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Building is seen in Washington, U.S., February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Still unclear was whether the Senate’s 53 Republicans will coalesce around a wide-ranging measure approved early on Saturday by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

That multibillion-dollar bill requiring paid sick leave for some workers, expanded unemployment compensation and nearly $1 billion in additional money to help feed children, homebound senior citizens and others, has White House backing.

Without the permission of all 100 senators to move quickly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell likely would have to gather a supermajority of at least 60 votes for the House bill to clear procedural hurdles.

His other option would be to amend the House bill to shore up Republican backing. But doing so would require final approval by the House, which is on a weeklong recess.

Meanwhile, there were media reports that Republican U.S. Representative Louis Gohmert, who voted against the House bill, was using a procedural move to block or slow the ability of the House to send the legislation to the Senate for consideration.

Late on Sunday, McConnell issued a statement saying that Republicans and Democrats “are eager to act swiftly” on a coronavirus bill that would follow $8.3 billion in emergency funding approved by Congress on March 5 and promptly enacted into law by Republican President Donald Trump.

That bill was aimed at helping develop a coronavirus vaccine, ensure better supplies of medical equipment and help state and local governments deal with the burgeoning crisis, which has hit financial markets hard, shuttered New York’s Broadway theaters and caused growing numbers of workers to do their jobs from home in an attempt to reduce exposure to the coronavirus.

But, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States rapidly rose to more than 3,800 and the number of deaths to more than 70, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, some Republican senators were challenging the House bill.

“The president and states already have adequate authority and funding to address the current situation,” Senate Homeland Security and Government Operations Chairman Ron Johnson said in a statement on Saturday, saying the House-passed bill would force small businesses “to pay wages they cannot afford.”

Meanwhile, congressional leaders were beginning to focus on a third response bill that staffs from several House and Senate committees were mulling.

One House Democratic aide knowledgeable about the discussions said there was no firm timetable yet for producing such a measure.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, in a statement on Monday, called for swift approval of the House bill and called for additional legislation, including sending $1,000 to each adult American, to help “meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy.”

Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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