News Brief: Aid Package, Reopening America, Sen. Burr's Stock Sale

Mar 25, 2020
Originally published on March 25, 2020 7:40 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lawmakers faced a few delays in agreeing on a coronavirus relief bill.

NOEL KING, HOST:

They certainly did. But if you think about this in terms of dollars per hour, they actually worked pretty fast. At around 1:30 this morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood next to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and they announced roughly $2 trillion worth of relief.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The men and women of the greatest country on earth are going to defeat this coronavirus and reclaim our future. And the Senate is going to make sure they have the ammunition they need to do it.

CHUCK SCHUMER: To all Americans, I say, help is on the way - big help and quick help. We're going to take up and pass this package to care for those who are now caring for us.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the help? NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is with us now. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How does one spend $2 trillion?

GRISALES: So many ways. There are so many provisions in this package, many of which were talked up in recent days with senators on both sides hoping these provisions would make it into the final plan, among them, for example, there will be direct payments to Americans to rush kind of those concerns and address those concerns as financial concerns for individuals. Unemployment insurance has been extended under this plan. It would go from three months to four months, so laid-off workers would get pay for up to four months is what they're looking at.

There also would be a Marshall Plan - this is what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling it - for hospitals and medical needs. And so that would look at more than $100 billion. And then there would be additional billions to buy up equipment and add to the national stockpile, kind of addressing all of these shortages that we're hearing about when it comes to...

INSKEEP: Oh, things...

GRISALES: ...Masks.

INSKEEP: ...Like ventilators and so forth and masks. OK.

GRISALES: Exactly - so addressing that. So those are some of those key pillars. Both sides got a lot of what they were hoping to see in this final proposal.

INSKEEP: And that's just the beginning of the list of what you're going through. There's a lot of stuff there - expanded unemployment insurance, other things. So much money. And we heard a big difference of opinion in recent days between Democrats and Republicans over who decides if that money is well-spent. Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts, said this on NPR Monday.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: You can't just take $450 billion, hand it over to the secretary of Treasury and say hand it out to your closest friends on a no-strings-attached basis. No, there have to be strings.

INSKEEP: So she said. But are there strings in the final version of the bill so far as we know?

GRISALES: There are many strings. Democrats had been pushing for this in the Senate. And among them - they were worried about one provision in the proposal that would fund about $500 billion towards these larger businesses, such as airlines, that are struggling with this pandemic. And the concern was the oversight - that they could send this money over and then we could see layoffs or bumps in CEO pay. And so what they've installed - and this is one of the sticking points that held up negotiations - was an oversight panel. It'll be made up of congressional members. It'll be called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. And there will also be a new special inspector general to overlook how this money is being spent.

And so they want to ensure that it's not being moved over to CEO pay and concerns like that. There's also strings when it comes to the president's businesses - vice president, members of Congress - to ensure that they're not eligible for these loans that will be part of this bill.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, what happens next?

GRISALES: So we could see votes on this in the Senate. We'll await the House reaction later today. They could, if they're on board, approve it later this week and send it to the president's desk.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks for the update.

GRISALES: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

Now, the president took up part of yesterday with a kind of dream scenario.

KING: Yeah, he went on Fox and he said that he'd like to see the country up and running by Easter. He said he wants to see the churches full. That is April 12. Public health experts quickly said that timeline would be very dangerous. And later, the president did acknowledge that he should be guided by data.

In New York City, where they are having a big problem with the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed this idea out of hand.

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BILL DE BLASIO: I think the notion that we could be, quote, unquote, "back to normal" in the month of April is absolutely inconceivable at this point.

KING: More than 15,000 known cases of coronavirus in New York at this point - the situation there is so serious that Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House task force said that people should take special measures if they plan on leaving the city.

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DEBORAH BIRX: Everybody who was in New York should be self-quarantining for the next 14 days to ensure that the virus doesn't spread to others, no matter where they have gone.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Wow. NPR health correspondent Rebecca Hersher has been covering the situation in New York. Rebecca, good morning.

HERSHER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What makes that measure necessary for New York City?

HERSHER: Well, the virus has spread really rapidly in New York City. The concern now is that the virus is so prevalent that if you've been there, you may have been exposed. So if you've left New York City recently, officials are asking that you stay in your home, quarantine for the remainder of the 14 days since you left - even if you feel OK. Remember the virus can spread even if you have very mild symptoms.

INSKEEP: And you can see why this has to be a request. They're talking about somebody who might have left New York four days ago, seven days ago. They'd like you to count back and count forward and spend some time at home.

HERSHER: Exactly, exactly.

INSKEEP: Now, what are you hearing about conditions in New York City as the number of cases in the hospitals grows?

HERSHER: Well, most of the major hospitals in New York City say they have limited supplies. That supply issue is just huge. We're talking about masks. We're talking about gowns, face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer - basic stuff you need to safely treat COVID-19 patients. Most hospitals I spoke to have about one to two weeks of supplies. That might sound like a lot, but it's really not. And most hospitals are doing some kind of rationing, locking up supplies to make sure people don't take more than they need, maybe don't even steal things.

And then there's this issue of beds. Everyone is talking about beds. How many beds are there? There are not enough beds in New York City to accommodate the surge in sick people that's expected in the next few weeks. The number of beds needs to more than double, which is huge. So it's basically impossible without federal government help.

Right now FEMA and the National Guard are setting up a thousand extra beds in a convention center in Manhattan, same thing in college dormitories in the city. But they're racing against the clock right now because that curve of coronavirus cases, it's very steep in New York. It's getting faster very quickly.

INSKEEP: The number of cases has been doubling every few days, if I'm not mistaken. So what pressure does that put on doctors and nurses?

HERSHER: Enormous, enormous pressure. And I'm hearing a mix of selfless bravery and fear, frankly. People are concerned. One doctor told me he woke up in a cold sweat the other night because he realized he hadn't updated his will. This is a longtime doctor in New York City, and he just is concerned.

INSKEEP: Rebecca, thanks for the update.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

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INSKEEP: Next, we have an update on a story that NPR's Tim Mak broke last week.

KING: Right. First, let us remind you what happened. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, went to a North Carolina luncheon back in February. He told the group of people the exclusive group of people there that the coronavirus was going to be as serious as anything since the flu pandemic of 1918. Tim got hold of a recording of him saying that.

But outside the luncheon, the senator didn't give such a clear warning to the rest of the country. And remember President Trump back at that time was often downplaying the scale of the pandemic. So after Tim's report, ProPublica broke a story about Burr. He dumped up to $1.7 million worth of stock, which is a big part of his net worth, on a single day after he was briefed about how serious the virus could get. Now Burr is being sued.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Tim Mak is here with an update. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the basis of the lawsuit, and who's suing?

MAK: Right. So Alan Jacobson of California was a shareholder in Wyndham Hotel & Resorts. That's one of the stocks that Burr sold. He's alleging that Senator Burr exploited information available to him as a senator for personal gain. Thomas O'Brien, a lawyer representing Jacobson, said they're trying to take the lead in holding Burr accountable.

THOMAS O'BRIEN: There's a vacuum there, and we're not waiting for the federal government, regulatory agencies. We're moving forward to remedy the wrong that the senator's created against our client and others.

MAK: I should note, I reached out to Senator Burr's office for comment for the story but received no response. Previously, he has said that he relied on public news stories to make his stock decisions. He's also says he's asked the Senate Ethics Committee to open an investigation into his own actions.

INSKEEP: Now, it's meaningful that somebody from a hotel chain - connected with a hotel chain would be suing him because you can see out that business would be especially affected by this particular news that was looming. Could the senator face legal action beyond this lawsuit?

MAK: Well, the big question is whether the Justice Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission will open up an investigation based on the facts we already know. I spoke to Katie Goldstein. She used to lead these sorts of investigations in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

KATIE GOLDSTEIN: When I first read the allegations, the thought that crossed my mind was, it seems likely to me that there will be a grand jury investigation of this conduct. The circumstances were such that I thought it was likely that a U.S. Attorney's Office, perhaps the Southern District of New York, would open an investigation.

MAK: To be clear, there's no evidence that an investigation has started. I also reached out to the Justice Department and the SEC, and they had no comment.

INSKEEP: We've heard from some senators saying, we should not be allowed to do this; we should not be allowed to trade in individual stocks. But are they moving to change that rule?

MAK: Well, lawmakers in the House have introduced what they call a Ban Conflicted Trading Act, which was first championed by Jeff Merkley of Oregon in the Senate. It would prohibit lawmakers from trading individual stocks. So along with Congressman Joe Neguse and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi is one of the lead sponsors of the legislation.

RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think it's time that the public knows that their members of Congress are not profiteering off of, you know, information that they gain through their public service. It's not fair, and it's not right.

MAK: Well, Democrats are the initial co-sponsors to the legislation. But given the bipartisan outrage at Burr's actions, they have some hope that Republicans will join them.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks for your reporting on this.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.