Trump signs $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package and orders production of ventilators

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday ordered General Motors to produce ventilators for hospitals strained by COVID-19 patients, and signed into law the largest rescue measure in history, a $2 trillion economic relief package to get money to many Americans as well as hospitals, businesses, and state and local governments struggling with the pandemic.

Trump used his power under the 1950 Defense Production Act to issue the order to GM, just a day after he had dismissed calls from governors and hospitals for tens of thousands of the devices. He had been widely criticized for not acting sooner, as doctors from California to New York have complained of shortages that threatened to cost many lives.

His actions came on a day when the United States surpassed all other nations in confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection, now exceeding 100,000. The number of dead approached 1,500 as he signed the economic relief measure into law.

Until Friday, Trump had said he didn’t need to invoke his authority under the defense production law because businesses were voluntarily retooling to make needed medical supplies, including protective masks for health care workers. In a statement, however, he suggested GM was driving too hard a bargain.

“Our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course,” he said. “GM was wasting time.”

In tweets, Trump further assailed the automaker and its chief executive, Mary Barra, as well as Ford. In one, he wrote, “General Motors MUST immediately open their stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant in Ohio, or some other plant, and START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!! FORD, GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!!!!!!”

Some experts noted that Trump’s use of the Korean War-era act was unusual for prodding a single company to produce items, rather than force an industry generally to make necessary goods in a time of war or national crisis.

Nicolas Vyas, the executive director at the Center for Global Supply Chain Management at the University of Southern California, said he was pleased Trump acted but disappointed he did so in such a limited way. Vyas said the president’s order seemed spiteful, and urged the federal government to use the law more aggressively.

“This is not how you should be thinking during a time of huge national crisis,” Vyas said. “We need a holistic approach. We need to bring experts and industry together to pool capabilities and to come up with a comprehensive solution. Why are we playing around and doing this marginal execution rather than execution?”

Public health experts and state and local leaders also have been urging Trump to use the law to boost production of personal protective equipment, such as masks and scrubs. Ventilators, however, are an increasingly scarce lifesaver for patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and suffering acute respiratory distress.

Trump’s order marked a turnaround for him. On Thursday, he had criticized Democratic governors pleading for more ventilators and told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. … You know, you go into major hospitals sometimes and they’ll have two ventilators and now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

On Friday, Trump said he still hoped that the U.S. would not need all the ventilators it would be making and could export them to Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany.

“They’re all calling for ventilators. We’re going to make a lot of ventilators,” he said.

The president’s order followed a White House ceremony in the afternoon, where he signed the $2 trillion relief package just hours after the House approved the bill by a voice vote.

“I want to thank Democrats and Republicans for coming together and putting America first,” Trump said at the ceremony.

The Senate had passed the legislation 96-0 on Wednesday following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, significantly altering and expanding a package initially proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The fact that Democrats and Republicans could come together behind the package in otherwise polarized times reflected the severity of the health and economic crisis gripping the country. The parties’ unanimity was especially remarkable given the unprecedented cost of the measure, an amount that is equivalent to more than half of the $3.6 trillion in tax revenue that the U.S. government expects to collects this year.

Yet the bipartisanship did not extend to Trump’s signing ceremony. He did not invite any Democrats to the White House, only McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and three other senior House Republicans. He and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have not spoken in months.

The relief provisions would touch many aspects of American life. Along with providing a one-time direct payout of up to $1,200 for most American adults, the bill includes $500 billion in loans to struggling businesses, $377 billion in loans and grants for small businesses, $150 billion for local, state and tribal governments facing a drop in revenue and $130 billion for hospitals dealing with an onslaught of patients.

The package also blocks foreclosures and evictions during the crisis on properties where the federal government backs the mortgage; pauses federal student loan payments for six months and waives the interest; gives states millions of dollars to begin planning for the November election by offering mail or early voting, and provides more than $25 billion for food assistance programs such as SNAP.

It expanded who qualifies for unemployment assistance to include people who were furloughed, gig workers and freelancers. Coming after a week in which a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, the measure provided a $600 increase in jobless benefits for four months, on top of what states provide as base compensation, and extended by 13 weeks the duration of benefits, which is typically 26 weeks.

House Democratic leaders have already begun talking about the need for a fourth relief package. Pelosi on Thursday told reporters that it should include provisions for workers’ paid leave and safety protections, for covering the cost of COVID-19 treatments and for yet more funding for food stamps and state and local governments.

“We know that this cannot be our final bill,” Pelosi said on the House floor Friday, adding that it is a “down payment” toward what American workers, businesses and hospitals will need.

However, McCarthy told reporters Thursday he’s not ready to begin discussing a fourth package. “Let’s let this bill work,” he said.

The final vote did not go exactly as the Democratic and Republican House leaders planned. Maverick Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian conservative from Kentucky, demanded that a majority of members be present and that each lawmaker’s vote be recorded.

Massie cited the Constitution to support his action, and acted despite withering attacks from Trump on Twitter. The president called Massie “a third rate Grandstander” and went so far as to call for him to be ousted from the party.

Congressional leaders had hoped to hold a simple voice vote, to protect members from potentially contracting the coronavirus by traveling and gathering in the Capitol. Based on Massie’s earlier threat that he would insist on a quorum — 216 members at the moment — they summoned lawmakers back, forcing lawmakers to drive or find last-minute flights.

House leaders used a procedural move to quash Massie’s motion for a recorded roll call of lawmakers. They had dozens of House members take seats in the public galleries where tourists normally sit, rather than have everyone stand next to each other on the House floor to demonstrate that a quorum was present. Some wore latex gloves or stopped by the hand sanitizer dispensers on the way into the chamber.

When Massie called a second time for a roll call vote, he failed to get a fifth of those lawmakers present to back up his demand for a recorded vote, as required by House rules. If he had succeeded, the move likely would have delayed passage of the bill until Saturday, when additional lawmakers could return.

After more than three hours of debate, the $2 trillion bill passed by a voice vote in just under a minute. Members of both parties acknowledged that they opposed portions of the bill, but they said they would vote for it to help Americans withstand the economic hardships and stem the spread of the pandemic.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, said the government is obligated to step in: “When the government shut down the economy, it assumed the responsibility of bringing it back.”


(Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.)


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