ROBERT COSTA: President Trump and Congress face the test of our times.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) A fight has arrived at our shores. We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We’re very proud of the product. The bill last night will be a large infusion of funds for hospitals, health systems, and state and local governments.
MR. COSTA: Congress moves forward with a $2 trillion rescue bill to address fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but tensions continue as states scramble to handle a health crisis.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) The president said it’s a war. It is a war. Well, then act like it’s a war.
MR. COSTA: The president keeps pushing to reopen the economy, but top officials urge caution.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin with the latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The United States is quickly becoming the new epicenter of the global outbreak and now leads the world in confirmed cases. Governors and doctors from New York to Louisiana to Washington state are sounding the alarm about shortages of medical supplies.
And joining us is one of the reporters on the frontlines of this story: Yasmeen Abutaleb, a health policy reporter for The Washington Post. Yasmeen, thanks for being here. What is the significance of the United States surpassing China in terms of the number of cases?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: Well, I think it signals, you know, the epicenter of the outbreak has sort of jumped around the world. It was in China, then it was Italy, then it was Europe, now it seems to be the United States. The number of confirmed deaths from coronavirus in the United States still lags behind Italy and Spain, but of course that could quickly change in the next couple of days. I think it just signals the seriousness of which the United States is and needs to take the outbreak and that, you know, this is the new epicenter, and how quickly it’s been able to sort of spread all over the world.
MR. COSTA: As you look at the map, Yasmeen, where do you see emerging hotspots in the U.S.?
MS. ABUTALEB: So health experts are concerned about cities you would kind of expect as hotspots, you know, major metropolitan cities with high densities. New Orleans is emerging as a particularly troubling spot. The number of – the death rate there is the highest in the country and in the world right now. Boston is emerging as another potential hotspot, Chicago, Miami. So you can see it’s sort of quickly making its way around the country and is in those major cities that you would kind of expect to see this type of thing spreading quickly through.
MR. COSTA: Within those cities, what are the biggest problems for health professionals? We hear a lot about ventilators and their scarcity. Is that the issue, or are there other issues as well?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think there are a number of issues. There is, you know, a lot of panic over whether there will be enough ventilators to treat the sort of crush of patients that hospitals are beginning to see and expect to see worsen in the coming days and weeks, not just the ventilators but the workers who can operate them. That’s a specialized skill. Not just any professional can operate a ventilator, so that’s also a big concern. And then we’re sort of hearing these desperate pleas from health-care workers about facemasks, about gowns, about gloves, about the protective equipment they need. They keep saying, you know, they’re essentially being sent to war without protection, without equipment, and equating themselves to that sort of thing.
MR. COSTA: So, so many Americans, Yasmeen, have been working from home, trying to stop the spread. When you talk to your top sources in the health community, how successful has the United States been so far in stopping the spread?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think the United States, the consensus is, of course, has done much better in the last couple of weeks with significant social distancing. There was a poll today that nine in 10 Americans are practicing social distancing, so that’s obviously a great thing. I think there is still, though, some concern that the U.S. has taken sort of a patchwork approach to it. You know, there hasn’t been some sort of nationwide two-week shutdown like you’ve seen in some other countries, like in Italy or in Spain. You know, there are certain states that have full-on lockdowns and other states that aren’t enforcing it quite as much, so it’s still not consistent across the country. And I think the fear is in the places where there are maybe not as stringent requirements that you’re going to start seeing the seeds of a big outbreak being planted.
MR. COSTA: Final question, Yasmeen. When you look at the Food and Drug Administration, which has final approval over any drugs to combat COVID-19, what is the issue you’re looking at? What matters in your reporting there?
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, one thing that we’ve, you know, obviously observed coming up a lot is the president sort of mentioning these two old antimalaria drugs called chloroquine and hydro(xy)chloroquine as possible treatments for coronavirus. Some doctors are already prescribing them, you know, optimistic that maybe they will have some efficacy. Those drugs are in clinical trials to see if they do work for coronavirus. Because they’re already prescribed for another use, doctors can prescribe them for whatever they want. So we’re looking to see, you know, how the FDA trials sort of progress on chloroquine, anecdotal reports from doctors who are prescribing it. And there’s also another drug called remdesivir that the president has mentioned a couple of times that’s also in early clinical trials. But for both of those drugs it’s still pretty early and scant and mixed data, so it’s really unclear so far whether they work or not.
MR. COSTA: Thank you, Yasmeen, for your time and your reporting.
Let us turn to Capitol Hill. Earlier today the House approved a $2 trillion economic stimulus package. That vote comes as the economy is shuttering due to the virus, jobless claims are skyrocketing, and the stock market is on edge. But it wasn’t without drama; the bill was passed by voice vote following hours of contention sparked by Kentucky Republican Tom Massie, who tried and failed to force a roll-call vote. President Trump derided him on Twitter as a grandstander who should be tossed out of the GOP. Later on Friday the president signed the bill. In brief, it will send $1,200 checks to many Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars to small and large businesses, plus $250 billion to boost unemployment insurance, offering $600 per week for four months for laid-off workers.
Joining us now are four reporters who are covering Washington’s response to the virus: Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC; Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN; and joining us here at the table Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Eamon, we will begin with you. This legislation, when you talk to economists and business leaders, is it seen as a full solution for this economic trouble or just a Band-Aid?
EAMON JAVERS: It’s not seen as a full solution, Bob, but it is seen as a good, solid first step. You saw the market respond very favorably to this this week, although we were down today, but in anticipation of this bill we did see a big market rally. I think investors look at this as a very good first step from Congress, but they acknowledge that they’re going to need to see more, and you heard that from congressional leaders as well. Remember, it’s a $24 trillion annual economy; this is a $2 trillion bill. The economy has gone to something close to zero. I mean, when you see these unemployment claims, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment this week; that’s the biggest ever. The previous record was in the 600,000 range back in 1982. We are way past that. We are in uncharted territory in terms of the economy, and Congress is beginning to get its arms around the size of the problem that it’s dealing with here.
MR. COSTA: Manu, you are at the Capitol. You’ve been covering this all week. How close was Congressman Massie of Kentucky to scuttling this entire bill?
MANU RAJU: Well, he was close to delaying this a little bit further, but actually Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, worked behind the scenes to prevent that from happening. What Tom Massie actually was successful in doing was getting half of the House to return to session, and members were not happy about that because what he wanted to do was to prevent the House from approving it simply by a voice vote. And when you have a voice vote in the House you can just have a handful of members in the chamber to do just that, but what Massie wanted was a full recorded vote. That means members would have to vote in person, cast a roll-call vote. But in order for him to get a roll-call vote, he essentially would need to have a second, support from about a fifth of the chamber to go that way. But in order for the – for Nancy Pelosi and the Republican leader to deny that from happening, they had to get an actual quorum; an actual 216 members had to be present to deny Thomas Massie the second that he needed in order to force that rollcall vote. So that means, Bob, that Republican and Democratic members from all over the country had to travel back to Washington today just to prevent that from happening. And that infuriated members from both sides of the aisle who were concerned about their wellbeing, their family’s wellbeing, concerned about traveling in the middle of this public health emergency. And as a result, they came to Washington, and the end result was the same as what they initially wanted, was a quick voice vote. And that’s what ultimately happened. It got passed quickly. Thomas Massie got overruled here. And the bill went into law just hours later.
MR. COSTA: What a different scene in the Senate, Susan. A 96 to zero vote. When you step back and look at that bipartisanship, what explains it, based on your reporting, not only now but at previous crises, like the 2008 financial crisis?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I was thinking about the 2008 experience because you remember that first effort to pass a big bailout bill failed, and the market tanked, and there was a real sense of a crisis getting even worse. But the Republican leader in the Senate at that point, Mitch McConnell. The speaker of the House was Nancy Pelosi. They got a deal put back together and passed through the House, that was really the critical vote that time around, because they had to. And so we’ve had two people who had dealt with a similar situation in the past, knew it had to get done. You know, I think we shouldn’t lose sight of how remarkable this is. We have basically a dysfunctional Congress. But in the space of a week or two they negotiated a $2 trillion bill, the biggest relief bill in American history, and got it through almost unanimously through both houses.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, as much as Congress has made progress on this legislation, President Trump at the White House is still moving forward to invoke the Defense Production Act, trying to nudge General Motors and other companies to produce things like ventilators. What is the scene and the mood at the White House, despite what happened in Congress? Why are they moving forward in this way today on the DPA?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, the president is invoking the Defense Production Act which, of course, is when the government can direct American manufacturers to make what the government says they need. In this case, the government is telling General Motors: We really need ventilators. You have to now take our orders and prioritize our contracts. This happened because the president and the White House says that they were negotiating with General Motors, but that General Motors was, quote, “ripping them off.” Those are President Trump’s words. And that they were trying to essentially charge the government too much to make these ventilators. To speed up those talks the president did this.
What’s interesting though, of course, is that governors, both Republican and Democrat, have been urging the president to use the Defense Production Act for weeks. They’ve said for weeks: We need not just ventilators but masks, we need gloves, we need gowns for hospitals. We’re in dire shortage of all those things. And this is just the president doing one company for one specific medical equipment. The other thing to note is that the president said yesterday on Fox News that he doesn’t believe that some of these governors need all of the medical equipment that they’ve been asking for. Specifically, he said: I don’t think that New York possibly needs 30,000 ventilators. And of course New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been urging the president and saying: I need 30,000 ventilators.
So it’s unclear whether or not, even with the president invoking the Defense Production Act, whether or not he believes and will fill the orders and requests coming from governors across the country.
MR. COSTA: And many of these governors I spoke to this week, Eamon, like Governor DeWine of Ohio and Governor Whitmer of Michigan, they’re really paying attention to small businesses in their state. And they’re wondering: Will this legislation enable those businesses, large and small, to get the loans as soon as possible? Because the economy, in their view, is on a knife’s edge.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, there’s an important provision in here, Bob. And anybody who’s watching who’s a small business owner needs to know about this. It’s an expansion of the Small Business Administration 7(a) loan program. And what it does is something radical and new in American legislation and in the economy. It’s, in essence, free money for small businesses if they agree not to lay anybody off over a period of time. So you get an eight-week loan of up to $10 million for companies that are 500 employees or less. And if at the end of the period of time in the bill, if you haven’t laid anybody off you get to keep the money. So that’s free money.
We’ve never seen anything like that before in American economics. So it’s going to be a fascinating moment. There are some particulars to the bill that small businesses are going to need to pay attention to, but this is potentially huge. It’s authorized as up to $350 billion or more in the bill. My suspicion is it will go much, much higher than that, because a lot more small businesses are going to apply once they realize this is out there.
The way to get this if you’re a small business owner is to go to your regular banker, your regular lender you’re used to dealing with, and ask them about a 7(a) loan. They’ll go and deal with the Small Business Administration. Small business owners don’t have to deal with the government on this. Just deal with your regular banker. It’s going to put an enormous strain on the banking system generally, but that’s how it’s going to work because they are the ones who are actually reaching out and touching all the individual businesses.
MR. COSTA: Manu, Eamon mentioned that the market dipped 900 points, the Dow Jones Industrial Average today, Friday. Are we going to see if the economy continues to suffer a phase four, another round of legislation? How many options are left for Congress?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, that’s – one thing that the Democrats in the House are already talking about, a phase four rescue package. And remember, they’ve already passed an $8.3 billion package that was passed by bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress. And of course, there was a second major package that included more jobless benefits, as well as Medicaid spending to the states, as well as paid leave. That was approved – that was a phase two. And then this measure, the $2 trillion measure, the biggest rescue package in American history.
And right now, Nancy Pelosi is talking about a phase four. And I asked her today what her timeline is for that, and she said that she is – this week she’s asking all of her chairmen of the key committees to submit proposals and ideas for how to move forward. She’s talking about things like increased funding for state and local governments, also for – to ensure that people who are getting tested for the coronavirus, they get their treatment covered as well. Things including more food stamps and the like, and more expansive paid leave policies. Things that the Democrats did not think that they were – did not get to their satisfaction in the last couple pieces of legislation they’re pushing on this one.
Now, Bob, the question is, though, if the Republicans are ready to move forward. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said that: Let’s see how this $2 trillion stimulus package – how that is implemented first before we start talking about a phase four. So Pelosi wants to push forward. Thinks she needs to push forward by mid-April, potentially. We’ll see if the Republicans decide to join hands here.
MR. COSTA: And, Susan, you think about Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, you’re writing a biography of Speaker Pelosi. We’ve already talked about Thomas Massie, the conservative libertarian who’s been critical of this deal. But you also saw Representative Ocasio-Cortez of New York from the left criticize this deal, wonder if it has enough oversight. Is she prepared to deal with that kind of criticism from the left as she plows ahead, as Manu has sketched out?
MS. PAGE: Of course, she’s had that kind of criticism from AOC from the very beginning of this Congress. I think one of the remarkable things is this debate over the role of government has been settled, to some degree. We have now accepted as a country in the space of a couple weeks a bigger role for the federal government than we ever had a consensus of before.
Who do you turn to to feed school kids, to support small businesses, to even take equity stakes in airlines, to do all these things that these series of bills have done? People are looking to the federal government to do it, with almost no debate. And, you know, you think about what the repercussions of that are going to be for the country, whether or not there is a fourth bill, the role of the government has just shifted in a big way. We’re going to be dealing with that for a long time.
MR. COSTA: The ideological fault lines are scrambled, the Republicans backing direct payments to Americans, a plan that months ago was only being advocated by someone like Andrew Yang.
MS. PAGE: And we’ll have blowback from that when we all catch our breath. But at the moment, the nation has agreed: This is the government we want and need.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, let us dig a little deeper for a second back into the White House, because this week President Trump said he is hoping to reopen the American economy and adjust social distancing guidelines by mid-April.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’d love to have it open by Easter, OK?
HARRIS FAULKNER: (From video.) Oh, wow. OK.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I would love to have it open by Easter. I will – I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that – that’s such an important day for other reasons. But I’ll make it an important day for this too. I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.
MR. COSTA: But the administration’s top health experts are far from ready to set a date.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) When you have a situation – when the cases today compared to tomorrow is increased dramatically, and then the next day is increased dramatically, that’s no time to pull back. That’s when you got to hunker down, nail down, mitigate, mitigate, mitigate, get the people taken care of. That’s what you got to concentrate on. You have to go with the data.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, is the decision about when to reopen the American economy perhaps the biggest decision of his presidency?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think so, Bob. The president has been focused on making up this date in his own mind, this Easter Sunday date that he’s been talking about, and urging, and saying this is what I want. I want church packed on Sunday. But when he was pressed about where he got that date from, the president made it clear that that was something that he just felt, his instincts just led him to that date, there was no scientific data. He wasn’t even trying to say that his health experts recommended that that might be a good date. The other thing to note is there are some Republican governors that – especially reporting from The Washington Post shows that there were some Republican governors from Mississippi and other places that were saying maybe it is a little time to ease the White House restrictions and to ease social distancing. But for the most part you hear health officials saying no, that’s not what we need to do; what we need to do is figure out whether or not we’re at the peak of this virus, and most health experts say we’re not, and then figure out what we can do going forward to find treatments and maybe a vaccine in about a year. But there’s no one other than really President Trump and a couple Republican governors talking about opening up the government, so this is going to be a big decision if President Trump decides to say, you know what, there are parts of the country that I feel are OK to open. He was talking yesterday about possibly Idaho and the farm belt. So I think it’s still unclear whether or not the president will actually go through with that, but it’s going to be a remarkable decision whenever he decides to open the government back up.
MR. COSTA: Eamon, what would the consequences be of having the economy shuttered through May, through June?
MR. JAVERS: I mean, it’s devastating, Bob. And you know, you heard – the vice president was on CNBC today. He was asked about that Easter timeline and he walked it back I think as hard as this vice president can with this president. He said, you know, that was an aspirational date that the president put out there. Does not sound like the vice president believes that that Easter date is realistic either, and what that means for the economy is really horrific. I mean, we’re in the red zone here in the economy; we’ve just never seen a situation like this. I think a lot of policymakers in Washington are assuming that the economy is sort of like a light switch; you can turn it off for now, leave the room dark for a few weeks, and then turn it back on. But the economy is more – the analogy is probably better – it’s more like a campfire, right, and it takes a while to get it going, and you build the kindling and put the logs on, and then when you dump a bucket of water on it and snuff it out you’re not going to be able to turn it back on automatically very quickly. It is going to take a lot of stoking and encouraging and some time. And so the longer this goes on the more time it’s going to take to get back to normal, and that’s a scary thing for the millions of Americans who filed for unemployment this week and who will do it next week and the week after that, and all the small businesses who are going under and declaring bankruptcy. All of that is terrifying. That fear factor ripples through the American economy, everybody holds back on investing/spending, hunkers down, that slows everything down even further, and you get the opposite of a virtuous cycle here. You get a real spiral, and that could be a problem. I mean –
MR. COSTA: You’re right.
MR. JAVERS: We’re really in uncharted waters here, and nobody knows exactly how this is going to play out.
MR. COSTA: And I can see that fire looking nice and warm behind you, Eamon. But Manu, what about the pressure points from Capitol Hill on this question of reopening the economy? Is the president getting phone calls?
MR. RAJU: Well, a lot of Republicans don’t want him to be – to act prematurely. I talked to several of them this week after the president said that they should offer that Easter timeline as something that he was thinking about and they said he needs to listen to the medical experts. People like Joni Ernst, a Republican who’s up for reelection in Iowa, she said listen to the medical experts, let’s not set any artificial timeline. Also some people like Deb Fischer, who is a Republican from Nebraska, part – who advises the Republican leadership, someone who’s aligned with the president on virtually everything, said we have to be very, very cautious before we move forward. And even Lindsey Graham, the president’s closest ally at the moment in the Senate, he said – he made a – he said – he’s made several public comments this week that the – that the president should not act without considering the data here. So if the president does go this route, he’s probably going to get very few people on his side, and I’m sure he recognizes that as well. So, as Eamon was saying, this is an aspirational goal, one that probably doesn’t have a lot of political support. The medical community is not behind it.
MR. COSTA: And governors, Susan – final thought here, quickly – may decide to have their own timelines, and we’ve seen them step to the fore again and again during this crisis.
MS. PAGE: And we’ve seen real friction between governors and the president about what the president should be doing and his criticism of governors for criticizing him.
MR. COSTA: Thank you very much to everyone for joining us here on a tough week for the whole country. That’s all the time we have. And thank you for joining us from your home. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can every week. But in closing, let us also salute the Americans who are keeping us safe and our nation functioning during this crisis.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.