Senate Coronavirus Bill, Cash Payments : Politics Podcast The Senate is negotiating another aid package to address the coronavirus, one that would provide direct cash payments, loan guarantees for impacted businesses and more resources for testing and development of vaccines.

Also, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned a small group of well-connected constituents three weeks ago to prepare for dire economic and societal effects of the coronavirus, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and investigative correspondent Tim Mak.
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Senate Hopes To Pass Next Stimulus Bill On Monday

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Senate Hopes To Pass Next Stimulus Bill On Monday

Senate Hopes To Pass Next Stimulus Bill On Monday

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TROY: This is Troy (ph).

LAURA: Laura (ph).

AMANDA: Amanda (ph), Lucy (ph) and Tex (ph).

TROY: And we're currently driving instead of flying from California to Texas so that we can social distance. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:11 p.m. on Friday, March 20.

TROY, LAURA AND AMANDA: Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: It's quite a lengthy road trip to social distance.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm not sure I understand how you can road trip and social distance at the same time.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, I guess they're in it together.

KHALID: (Laughter) Don't get me wrong. There were moments when I thought, like, man, maybe I should just pick up and drive to my parents' house.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: At least I would get child care help.

KEITH: (Laughter).

KHALID: Well, hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the 2020 campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: President Trump is holding his fifth press conference in a row today. Yep, we've had a briefing every single day. It has been that kind of week. And every day, the president has been updating the public on how the administration is trying to keep people healthy while also deal with the economic fallout to this pandemic. And, Tam, you cover the White House, so let's start with you. What were the key headlines out of today's press conference?

KEITH: The president made a bunch of announcements at the top of the press conference, and I should say that with all of these things, sometimes, they end up being a little more nuanced than he describes them as upfront. But let's just go with what we know. He says that there will be no standardized testing requirements for kids in school, who are no longer in school. And also, the federal government is waiving interest on federally held student loans. That we knew, but also, the secretary of education is directing lenders to allow borrowers to suspend their payments without penalty for at least 60 days.

KHALID: Wait. To be clear, Tam, you're talking about student loans there of all sorts then.

KEITH: Yes. Though, you know, I think that we might gain clarity over time. I think these are only federal student loans not private student loans. And then Tax Day is officially moving from April 15 to July 15, at least for federal taxes. And the really big news is that both the Mexican and Canadian borders will be shut down starting tomorrow to all but essential travel. Commerce will still continue and other things like that.

DAVIS: But, Tam, at times at these briefings, there seems to be a disconnect with what the president is promising and then the reality of what the public health officials are telling us.

KEITH: Right, both a disconnect between the reality of what public health officials are saying and also just sort of the reality of what is being promised, whether it matches up at the time that he's saying it. So an example of that is that yesterday, President Trump came out of the briefing and said, there is this super-promising drug. It's used for malaria. We think it's going to be great for COVID-19. We're going to rush it out into the market. Well, today at the briefing, Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist who has been helping with the response in a big way and is probably the most trusted person in the country on this outbreak - he said, I wouldn't go that far. And then President Trump responded or was asked about that, and he pushed back and said he thought it was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: May work, may not work. I feel good about it. That's all it is, just a feeling. You know, I'm a smart guy. I feel good about it. And we're going to see. You're going to see soon enough.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, there's this very big challenge of sort of balancing expectations and giving people a sense of the seriousness, not upsetting people too much but also not giving false hope. And then Fauci was asked to respond to what Trump said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The president feels optimistic about something - his feeling about it. What I'm saying is that it might be effective. I'm not saying that it isn't. It might be effective. But as a scientist, as we're getting it out there, we need to do it in a way as while we are making it available for people who might want the hope that it might work, you're also collecting data that will ultimately show that it is truly effective and safe under the conditions of COVID-19.

KEITH: Or maybe not - that's the thing. There's no study to know. They're just throwing stuff against the wall. And Fauci says, you know, be careful. It hasn't been proven effective at all.

KHALID: Tam, there have been concerns about a lockdown, as we've seen certain states advise people to stay at home. Is there thoughts or was there clarity on a national lockdown?

KEITH: The president said that for now, he doesn't see a need for it. But as you say, states are instituting stay at home orders for all of their residents. We have both New York and California announcing those in the last 24 hours. And what the president said was, you know, it definitely makes sense in those areas. He supports those moves, but he isn't sure it makes sense in other areas of the country where the virus may not be as widespread.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Essentially, you've done that in California. You've done that in New York. Those are really two hotbeds. Those are probably the two hottest of them all in terms of hotspots. I don't think so because you go out to the Midwest, you go out to other locations and they're watching it on television. But they don't have the same problems. They don't have by any means the same problem.

KEITH: I think one thing that we just don't know at all is how widespread the virus truly is. It is in all 50 states now. What we don't know is how many people have it because the testing is still ramping up.

KHALID: The other big news that we need to discuss today is that the Senate has now released the text of the trillion-dollar stimulus package that we talked about on the podcast yesterday.

DAVIS: Right.

KHALID: Sue, there are plenty of interesting nuggets in that bill, but let's start with cash payments to Americans. I mean, that seems really interesting and intriguing to, I think, a lot of folks. What is that going to look like?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, that's the part of the bill that's going to affect most Americans most immediately. And in it, it would include, as you said, Asma, cash payments scaled to income. So once you make a certain amount of money, you wouldn't qualify for these cash payments. I believe if you're an individual who earns over $99,000 a year or a married couple that makes more than $198,000 or more, you won't get anything.

KEITH: One thing I have been confused about, Sue, is just how these negotiations are happening. It seems like Senate Republicans came out with a thing that they want, which is not necessarily the thing that House Democrats want, or it's not even clear to me that it's what the White House wants. And then the clock is ticking.

DAVIS: So Mitch McConnell essentially took control of this process, and there's a couple of reasons why. The first is he was able to get through that phase two bill. I think it passed 90-8 with a really big bipartisan margin. A lot of Republicans hated that bill. They didn't like the way it was written. It was essentially written by Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin. And McConnell got a lot of senators to vote for that by saying, the phase three bill - this is the one we're talking about now - will be more a product of Senate Republicans.

So McConnell wrote the first draft of the bill, in a way, to keep his Senate Republicans in line. Today they are now bringing in Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, other top Democrats on the committees that matter are hashing it out behind closed doors today - the four corners, he said, of the bill; the four main aspects of it. He told them, the negotiators, here's your baseline. Come back to me with what you can all vote for by midnight Friday. Mitch McConnell wants to be able to start drafting this bill on Saturday in order to be able to vote on it in the Senate as early as Monday.

KHALID: And, Sue, would that happen now that we know that there are people who have the coronavirus who are on Capitol Hill?

DAVIS: Well, McConnell told senators not to go anywhere. They're not going to adjourn until they pass this bill, so everyone's sort of hanging tight to the Capitol. The question - the bigger question is, because we know senators are in town and can vote for it - is, what does the House do next because the House is not in session? The majority leader, Steny Hoyer, over there has said he will not bring lawmakers back until they have a bill to vote for.

There's a fair amount of discussion in both the House and Senate of trying to change the rules of Congress to allow for remote voting, but Mitch McConnell again in the past 24 hours and Speaker Nancy Pelosi previously have indicated that they're really not game for that. They're not interested in changing the rules of Congress that senators and lawmakers and congressmen - they're still going to have to vote in person to get this through and then maybe take an extended break.

KHALID: Why is that, Sue, when we're all being advised to work remotely, that they're being sort of rather obstinate about not doing that?

DAVIS: Well, you know, it's a fascinating question, and I think a lot of Americans don't get it, right? Like, we're all working from home right now. Millions of people are working from home right now. We're making crazy accommodations in our own lives to get our jobs done. Why shouldn't Congress?

I think there's a couple of things. It's a constitutional question. There's a question of whether remote voting might be in violation of the Constitution. There's a lot of people who are institutionalist who feel that it would undermine the institution and the values of the chamber, that the whole argument for democracy is that you gather in one place, you debate, and you vote. And if you start a slippery slope of allowing lawmakers to vote from wherever they are, it changes the nature of the institution. There's also a ton of security questions. How do you vote? There's absolutely no infrastructure in place to protect the integrity of the vote to guarantee it's the lawmaker being the one casting the ballot. I'm not sure they're all going to get on a Slack channel and decide how to pass a bill or not.

So it seems simple, but it raises so many complex issues. Speaker Pelosi has said she's going to study the issue, but quite frankly, the timing just doesn't allow a long, deliberative process. I think it sounds like, as we sit here today, they're going to make the call to bring lawmakers back in the House to vote on this and then get them out of town as fast as possible.

KEITH: Even as two of them are currently at home with coronavirus.

DAVIS: At least two and maybe more, right? We have two confirmed positive coronavirus tests in Congress - Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Ben McAdams of Utah. He's a Democrat. They were on the House floor and voting on Friday and Saturday. Both of them said they started to feel symptomatic Saturday evening. They got tests. They're getting treatment. They're quarantined. But I believe at least of our last count, there's been at least 11 additional House members who have self-quarantined now because they were in contact with them - not that they've tested positive, but they are now self-quarantining because they were in relation with them.

So lawmakers are spooked. There is a real concern about that. Democrats are meeting about it on a conference call again today to debate it out. But it is quite possible there are more lawmakers carrying the coronavirus, and we just don't know it. And members are really mindful of that, and they are - admittedly, many of them - a little freaked out about coming back to D.C.

KHALID: All right. Well, we've got to take a quick break, and when we get back, we have an NPR exclusive report.

And we're back, and we're joined now by our old friend Tim Mak. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KHALID: So, Tim, you have left us and officially moved to a different floor in the building. Well, that's actually when we're not working remotely - a different floor. But you joined the investigations team for NPR, and you have some new reporting about Sen. Richard Burr. He's a Republican from North Carolina who serves as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was a crazy story, to be honest. But why don't you just fill us in from the beginning?

MAK: Well, I think to understand this story, you have to get a sense of the timeline of the story, right? So you have to go back about three weeks ago to February 27, when the United States had about 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19. There hadn't even been a single death in this country related to that virus. On that day, the president was even suggesting that the virus could be seasonal, that it could disappear. On that same day that the president made those comments, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr attended a luncheon, and this is a luncheon for well-connected individuals from his state of North Carolina. Now, Sen. Burr is really an expert on pandemics both in law and in the subject matter. And he held forth. He's told the well-connected constituents from his state the following.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BURR: There is one thing that I can tell you about this. It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.

MAK: The public was just - had probably heard about the coronavirus but certainly wasn't aware of the crisis it would and could become. But Sen. Burr seemed to think that it would become a real crisis. He warned the people in the room to start reconsidering travel to Europe. This is 13 days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURR: Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on videoconference. You don't want to risk it.

MAK: He warned about the threat of school closures. He warned that the military might be mobilized to combat the coronavirus, and that's something we're really only hearing about in earnest now. And this was a private event. Someone was so alarmed by what they were hearing, they started to record it, and that's where we got this secret recording showing what the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman was saying in private. Now, he never said any of this in public. He never warned the public that he felt that these steps might be necessary. He only warned these individuals behind the scenes at this private luncheon, and that's what's so amazing about this story.

KEITH: By that point, there had already been the first case of community transmission identified in the United States of coronavirus. You know, by then, President Trump had named the coronavirus task force and put Mike - Vice President Mike Pence in charge of it. So there had been some actions indicating that this was more serious than the numbers would have it seem. But also, around that same time, President Trump was saying things like, maybe it'll go down to zero, and, we've got this contained.

So there were a lot of contradictions coming out of the White House. I mean, I wonder, though, if, perhaps, like many Republicans, Burr didn't want to make public space between himself and the president. If the president saying it's going to go to zero, Burr probably wouldn't want to come out in public and say what he was saying in that closed-door meeting.

DAVIS: I don't think it is a surprise that politicians sometimes say something publicly that they say differently privately, especially to their donors. But what I think makes Tim's reporting all that more interesting is that within the same day, there was additional reports about Richard Burr's activities, that - namely, that around the time that he was aware of how serious the coronavirus implications could be, he also chose to liquidate a lot of his stock holdings, I think estimated to be almost near $2 million - up to $2 million of personal stock holdings. So that also raises additional alarms about whether the senator was not only acting ethically but acting legally.

MAK: Well, there was a ProPublica report on Thursday evening kind of outlining - hey; there are these - there's these public disclosures that show these massive stock sales on a single day - 33 stock sales, up to $1.7 million of stock sold on a single day that Sen. Richard Burr made. And those certainly look suspicious.

KHALID: So, Tim, what has Sen. Burr's response been to all of this?

MAK: Sen. Burr didn't say much on Thursday evening but, on Friday, seemed to be in a little bit of damage control - said that all his financial moves had been motivated only by public information, in particular reporting that he was seeing on CNBC coming out of Asia, and that he used no insider information in order to make those trades.

KEITH: The reason that Burr is being careful to say that this was all based on public information is that there is, in fact, a law. It is called the STOCK Act. It was passed a few years ago. That says members of Congress can't trade - do stock trades based on non-public information that they get because of their position as a member of Congress.

MAK: And he also referred his own conduct to the Senate Ethics Committee. What do you make of that, Sue?

DAVIS: Well, I think it does speak to the fact that he realizes that this is a much bigger political storm for him, right? Couple of things about Richard Burr - he's not going to run for reelection. He was reelected in 2016, and he's already said he will not seek another term in 2022. So in some ways, the traditional pressures of politics aren't really facing him because he's not really looking at his next reelection.

To the Senate Ethics Committee, you know, it's a pretty safe thing to call for an ethics investigation because anybody on Capitol Hill well knows the Senate Ethics Committee is probably best-known for all the work it doesn't do. It's not a rigorous investigative body. It is bipartisan. It's equally divided between the two parties, but it is not known for aggressive enforcement of senators' behaviors. Senators historically, traditionally, institutionally really don't like to discipline one another, so it's good reason to be skeptical that an ethics investigation into Richard Burr would amount to much of anything at all. I don't think that they've issued any reprimands to any senators for almost a decade now.

KEITH: And President Trump was asked about this today at the White House press briefing, asked about the stock trades by Burr and a couple of other senators. And President Trump sort of brushed it off, said he didn't know much about it but that these were good people.

KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there. Tim, thank you so much for coming back and hanging out with us.

MAK: Thanks for having me.

KHALID: And when we get back, it's going to be time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it is time to end the week like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the one thing that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And I want to go first because as you all know, I struggle with finding Can't Let It Gos (ph). But this week...

DAVIS: At least ones that aren't depressing.

KEITH: Yo (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: (Laughter) I know, right? (Laughter) But this week, I bring you a moment of joy - has nothing to do with the coronavirus. Really, well, it sort of tangentially might. But I don't know if you all have ever been to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. It is a beautiful, amazingly awesome place that has, like, penguins and lots of fish and dolphin shows. And growing up, we used to go there all the time, so I have sort of this personal affinity with the Shedd. And there was this video released earlier this week of the penguins at the Shedd who have gone...

DAVIS: Oh, I did see this.

KHALID: You did see this. (Laughter) So the penguins, because, like, nobody else can go to the Shedd right now, they got to go on tour of the Shedd.

KEITH: (Laughter).

KHALID: And there was this one little penguin, Wellington, who, apparently, is not very young. I think he's, like, 30 years old. But Wellington was, like, enamored with the tropical fish zone. And so there's this video that the Shedd posted that has gone viral of Wellington just, like, you know, waddling about and then staying fixated on the tropical fish because if you think about it, like, when else has a penguin probably ever, like, seen fish from the Amazon jungle before? So anyhow, if you haven't seen it, you should check it out. It, like, brought me a moment of joy amidst all of the crazy tumult, I feel, that we're all probably feeling these days.

DAVIS: That feels like such a good plot for the next Disney Pixar movie...

KHALID: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Like, the penguin that meets the tropical fish, and it's, like, such a curiosity. And they go on wonderful adventures together.

KHALID: Well, Sue, what can't you let go of?

DAVIS: So the thing I can't let go this week is the thing that I started out being a total hater about and have come to fully embrace - and not just embrace but endorse. And it is, essentially, virtual hangouts.

KEITH: (Laughter) Ah.

DAVIS: As all of us are stuck alone in our homes, you've - starting to see it more and more, where people are having playdates with their kids or they're having virtual happy hours or dinner parties with their friends. And I was kind of, like, eye-rolly (ph) about this in the beginning, but I downloaded an app. It's called House Party that friends of mine kept sending to me, saying we should do it. And I downloaded it, and I tried it last night. I'm a very recent convert - in the past 24 hours. But last night, I had, like, two...

KEITH: Things are moving fast here.

DAVIS: Yes. Well, I had two, quote-unquote, "house parties" with two different groups of friends, and we caught up.

KHALID: Wow. That's, like, really social for weeknight.

DAVIS: Yeah, it was great. I mean, it was honestly really wonderful to actually see people's faces. And the group chat was really fun, and we laughed. And it was, like, a good way to catch up with each other and de-stress and, like, talk about things that weren't all the stuff in the news that was stressing us all out. So I've - I'm a total convert. I really - if you guys haven't tried it, I think you should. I think it's great for your mental health. I think it's a great way to stay in touch with people. And I think maybe we might have to do a podcast hangout sometime soon.

KEITH: Ooh. Was there wine involved?

DAVIS: Of course there was wine involved.

KEITH: Oh, good, good. Glad to hear it.

KHALID: Well, Tam, what about you?

KEITH: So mine is on the coronavirus theme as well. A lot of people have been producing public service announcements, but one person has been sort of doing it his own way. Former California governor and Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger - he started out with a video on his Twitter of him showing his small dog how to wash hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: You see here? Look at this, Cherry. This is how you wash your hands.

KEITH: He was just, like, at the sink washing his hands, small dog not really paying attention. And then his next video was him at the dining room table with two mini ponies.

DAVIS: I loved the mini ponies one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHWARZENEGGER: We just ate. We had Whiskey, and we had Lulu. And we have a good time. We're getting entertained. Look at that beautiful smile she has.

KEITH: I mean, like, this whole thing, I'm like, where are you, Arnold Schwarzenegger? And why do you have miniature ponies in your dining room? But whatever - kind of amazing. Then he posted another one that was, like, you guys don't need to go out. Just stay here like me. I'm in my hot tub with a stogie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHWARZENEGGER: Here I am at home taking a jacuzzi, smoking a little stogie.

KEITH: And he - you know, it's like, how California can you be, right? So he's, like, in a hot tub with his shirt off, wearing a hat and sunglasses, telling people they should just stay home.

DAVIS: I imagine if you have a multimillion-dollar estate, sheltering in place is a much more pleasant way to ride this out.

KHALID: Maybe you, like, realize corners of your estate that you never knew existed, right?

DAVIS: That's probably true.

KEITH: (Laughter) Who knows?

KHALID: But I say this speaking from my two-bedroom apartment, so (laughter)...

DAVIS: Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was probably like, I have mini ponies?

KEITH: They have names, too. And then finally, the last video got a little bit more serious. And he was thanking all of the first responders and the doctors and the nurses and the grocery store clerks and everybody who's working so hard at this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHWARZENEGGER: I mean, all of those people are real heroes. I just want you to know that I appreciate it so much. I've played an action hero my whole life in the movies, but you are the true action heroes. Congratulations, and thank you for your serving - for serving the community. My father-in-law always said, you know, serve, serve, serve, for in the end, it will be the servant that will save us all. That's exactly what you're doing. You are the true action heroes.

KHALID: Well, that is it for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Brandon Carter, Maya Gandhi and Meredith Roten (ph).

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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