US Congress poised to back $480bn Covid-19 rescue package

Governors slam Senate leader McConnell over ‘irresponsible’ state bankruptcy comments

The US House of Representatives was poised to back a $484 billion (€449 billion) rescue package in a vote on Thursday as the number of Americans who lost their jobs since the onset of the coronavirus crisis rose by another 4.4 million.

Data from the labour department showed an increase of 4.4 million in unemployment filings last week, bringing to 26.6 million the total number of workers who have become unemployed in the last five weeks.

The figures emerged as the House debated a new relief package of almost half a billion dollars ahead of Thursday night’s vote. The new programme will help small businesses and also increase coronavirus testing provisions, after the original small business programme ran out of money last week.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the new rescue programme into law imminently. It brings to $2.6 trillion the total amount of federal funds now agreed by Congress to fight the economic effects of Covid-19, which has brought broad sectors of the US economy to a halt.


But in a sign of growing Republican resistance to providing any more money to help alleviate the economic impact of the virus, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said some states should declare bankruptcy rather than seek funding from the federal government.

His comments in a radio interview provoked outrage from several governors, including New York's Andrew Cuomo and Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer, whose home state witnessed the bankruptcy of Detroit during the last financial crisis. Ms Whitmer, who like Mr Cuomo is a Democrat, described Mr McConnell's comments as "incredibly irresponsible".

Several states have begun to re-open after the White House said it fell to individual governors to decide to lift restrictions based on federal guidelines. But Mr Trump said he did not agree with Georgia governor Brian Kemp's decision to open facilities such as gyms, bowling alleys and tattoo parlours from Friday. The Republican governor, an ally of Mr Trump's, is one of the first state leaders to announce re-openings though this has been opposed by many mayors in his state.

The mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, has also called for the city's casinos, hotels and other businesses to re-open without offering any social distancing plan.

Expert ousted

Meanwhile the White House was facing accusations that an expert at the Department of Health and Human Services was abruptly removed from his post this week because he opposed funding for research into hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug promoted by Mr Trump as a possible cure for coronavirus.

Rick Bright said he believed he was removed because of his stance on the drug, which has not been approved to treat Covid-19. The development came as an antiviral drug produced by drug maker Gilead was found to be unsuccessful in treating coronavirus, according to a draft World Health Organisation report.

Separately, it emerged that the health and human services secretary Alex Azar appointed an individual who previously ran a dog-breeding business but has little experience in the health sector to run his agency's day-to-day response to Covid-19.

The changes in personnel in the health department came as the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus continued to rise in the US. More than 47,000 deaths have now been reported in the country – the highest in the world. While the first known death from Covid-19 in the US was thought to have occurred on February 29th in Seattle, new data from California suggests people may have died from the virus before then.

Senator Elizabeth Warren disclosed that her eldest brother, an 86-year-old veteran living in Oklahoma, died from coronavirus this week. Congresswoman Maxine Waters said during Thursday's debate in the House of Representatives that her sister was dying from Covid-19 in St Louis, Missouri.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent