AILSA CHANG, HOST:
One trillion dollars - that is how much money the Trump administration is asking Congress to give them to fight the economic devastation brought on by the coronavirus.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's going to be big, and it's going to be bold. And the level, again, of enthusiasm to get something done, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This latest figure is in addition to the $100 billion package that's already been passed by the House of Representatives. We are going to spend the next several minutes talking through what all of this money would be used for, also where Congress stands on agreeing to it and how all this spending would track with the spread of the disease. To do all that, I am joined by a team of NPR reporters. They include chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell and, last but certainly not least, at an appropriately socially distance - I'd say you're eight feet away from me in the studio - our science correspondent Richard Harris.
Welcome, all three of you.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Thanks.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.
KELLY: Scott Horsley, you start. What does the administration want to do with all this money - $1 trillion?
HORSLEY: Right. We don't know all the details, but we do know there are various measures included to help struggling industries, including airlines, for example. Airlines say they've seen a bigger drop in traffic from the coronavirus than they did after 9/11. They were among the first businesses in the country to really feel the effects. Now, of course, that pain is spreading to a lot of smaller businesses. So the plan also includes some support for them. And then maybe the centerpiece of this is just direct payments to individuals. So many people have had their hours cut back or been laid off, so the package includes money directly to go to the hands of Americans.
KELLY: Mm hmm.
Kelsey, as we often say, it's Congress that controls the purse strings. How receptive are they sounding to this pitch by the administration?
SNELL: Well, they're saying that, first things first, they need to vote on that House bill that passed last week that they had to do some corrections to. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is essentially saying that Republicans should hold their nose and still vote for it even if they don't like it. After that, he wants to work on getting consensus among Republicans and with the White House on the bigger package before they move on, and then they're going to present it to the Democrats. He says they want to move as fast as possible. And he compared this moment to 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis when he was asked about it today in a press conference. And he says, these are the kinds of moments that Congress can overcome, and they can, you know, get past what divides them.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: Because these are not ordinary times. This is not an ordinary situation, and so it requires extraordinary measures.
SNELL: And those extraordinary measures seem like they will move as quickly as possible - with the reminder that the Senate, by nature, just moves slowly. So this is not a fix we're expecting to see today, tomorrow, maybe even days later.
KELLY: Richard Harris, the administration was also talking about something called telehealth this morning. How does that fit in? What's the significance?
HARRIS: Yeah, this is less about money and more about relaxation of rules. Seema Verma, who's the head of Medicare and Medicaid, announced that video appointments with doctors would be vastly expanded for people on Medicare. States are also encouraged to offer to their Medicaid patients. And the idea is people can link up by Skype and so on. Until now, the service has been primarily available just to people in rural areas, but the Trump administration has expanded it to all Medicare patients to meet this emergency.
It turns out that doctors can learn a lot without seeing you in person. For example, they can hear about your symptoms, and they can tell if you're having trouble breathing, for example. So to the extent this can be put to use, older and more vulnerable people don't have to risk going to the doctor and the hospital. And at the same time, it frees up those resources for people who really need it the most. So this is a very significant advance, particularly for older Americans.
I want to circle back to one piece of this package because there's all kinds of initiatives underway. But Scott, you mentioned this idea of sending cash payments directly to Americans. That was something that, initially, the administration had not thrown its weight behind because they were favoring more this payroll tax cut. Scott, why did the administration change its tune on that?
HORSLEY: Politically, there wasn't a lot of support for a payroll tax cut on Capitol Hill. And economically, it doesn't really fit the situation we're in. Cutting payroll taxes doesn't help you if you've suddenly been dropped from a payroll because your employer's been shut down.
HORSLEY: It's also a regressive tax break. High earners get a bigger tax cut than low-wage workers. Most importantly, though, it just takes too long. You know, tax cuts - a payroll tax cut shows up little by little every week in the shape of higher take-home pay. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says the administration wants to push money out to the economy fast, like within the next two weeks.
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STEVE MNUCHIN: We have to do this now. The president has instructed me that this is no fault to American workers. For medical reasons, we are shutting down parts of this economy. And we're going to use all the tools we have, as I've said. And what tools we don't have, we're going back to Congress.
HORSLEY: We know that a lot of the people who have suddenly seen their income cut off don't have a lot of savings to fall back on. So the goal here is to get money to them quickly so they can keep paying their bills and the damage to the economy doesn't just cascade further.
KELLY: And just to clarify, Scott, they are also saying, this is not going to go to absolutely everyone; billionaires aren't going to be getting these checks - is that right?
HORSLEY: Again, we haven't seen how that'll be administratively managed. But Secretary Mnuchin did tell reporters that millionaires wouldn't need a check from the government.
KELLY: So no checks for millionaires or billionaires.
OK. Kelsey, back to the question of, is Capitol Hill behind this? Is there bipartisan support for the idea of mailing most Americans a check and fast?
SNELL: Right now it seems like there is not much of a question about if they will do that; it's just a matter of how much they will send. And it goes, actually, back to your question of whether or not this will go to everybody or if it'll have to be tailored in some way. Republicans are saying that, you know, there might need to be some sort of income cutoff and maybe have the check be related to how large the family size is or how much income you are losing out on.
You know, I think it's pretty extraordinary to think right now that Republicans are very quickly getting on board with this. Cash payments are something that they have typically been opposed to in the past. But even conservative senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, you know, have been in favor of this cash payment process, you know, since early today, late yesterday. That is a sign that this is very, very likely to get approved.
KELLY: Richard Harris, just as we continue to tick through all of the developments and news nuggets that were coming out of this White House briefing today, I want to turn back to another question that's been on the front of people's mind, which is testing. Are there enough tests? Or can everybody who says they want to test, can they get a test? Where - did they make news on that today?
HARRIS: Yeah. There's still not enough, but there's certainly an improvement. And what we heard today - we're no longer hearing these sort of sky blue promises of millions of tests and so on. But we're hearing that there have been tens of thousands of tests that have already been run. And yesterday alone, 8,000 tests were run. So that's starting to feel like a response that's really kicking in, including - certain states have drive-through services. So you can drive up and give a nasal swab or a throat swab and so on and have that sent off to a lab.
KELLY: Without getting out and having any contact.
HARRIS: Yeah. So that's helpful, yeah.
KELLY: And what does that tell us about where we are in this epidemic? Or do we have - do we know?
HARRIS: Yeah. That - ultimately, we want to know - what we can say right now is, even if you can't get a test, if you have flu-like symptoms, the public health officials are saying, for heaven's sakes, stay home. You don't need to know whether it's this disease or flu or something else. Just stay home, isolate, and make sure you're not spreading it. So we don't actually need the test for that.
But the tests will be really helpful to really understand the dimensions of this epidemic. And they're finally starting to do sort of population-wide screening - public health departments are - to get a sense of, you know, is this sort of bubbling under the surface? There are like 5,000 reported tests - cases in this country. But pretty clearly, there's a lot, lot more than that.
KELLY: Kelsey, back to you and Capitol Hill and where Congress is in terms of timing. A trillion dollars is a - is not something you want to rush through. But they're trying to get this done this week. Is that right?
SNELL: Well, I think it's notable that Secretary Mnuchin said two weeks. And then out of the lunch where he was speaking to senators, they were talking more about, you know, the end of the month people could start seeing checks - end of April, I should say.
You know, that is - it's hard for Congress to move quickly, particularly on something this big. So I would not expect that it would happen this week. It really depends on how quickly the White House and Republicans can come together and then how quickly they can get Democrats on board once they've gotten themselves together. So there's a process yet to be done.
KELLY: OK. And Scott Horsley, I'm going to give you the last word. And it's a question I hardly dare ask at this time of day. But how did the markets react to all this today?
HORSLEY: The markets were pretty positive. In addition the new go-big approach from Congress and the White House, the Federal Reserve took more steps today to keep credit markets functioning. So businesses and investors welcomed all that. The Dow was up more than 5% - more than 1,000 points. The broader S&P 500 index was up about 6%.
KELLY: All right. That is NPR's Scott Horsley. We also talked with Kelsey Snell and Richard Harris, three of the many, many NPR reporters and journalists covering coronavirus and the fallout from it.
Thanks, all three of you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
SNELL: You're welcome.
HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.