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U.S. House passes sweeping coronavirus aid package, including free testing

Coronavirus outbreak: U.S. House passes economic aid package to provide free COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave
VIDEO: The U.S. House of Representatives passed a multi-billion dollar coronavirus economic aid package on Saturday, which will provide free testing and paid sick leave in an attempt to limit the financial damage caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a sweeping coronavirus aid package that includes free testing and paid sick leave for workers, just hours after U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the pandemic.

A bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans passed the bill just after midnight Saturday, with 363 representatives voting in favour.

Coronavirus outbreak: Pelosi announces new bill for access to COVID-19 testing, economic impacts in the U.S.
Coronavirus outbreak: Pelosi announces new bill for access to COVID-19 testing, economic impacts in the U.S.

The bill marks the first effort by Congress to limit the economic fallout from a pandemic that has infected over 130,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,000 — including 50 people in the U.S., as of Friday. Every state except West Virginia has reported at least one case.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Pelosi says U.S. ‘can no longer be in denial’ about COVID-19 numbers

The multi-billion dollar package, which Trump expressed support for, was drafted after days of extensive negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who represented the White House.

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READ MORE: Donald Trump declares national emergency over coronavirus pandemic

Trump took to Twitter to say he fully supports the package, dubbed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, saying he encourages “all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES!” The message boosted confidence the bill would pass the Republican-controlled Senate when it reconvenes next week.

“Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!” Trump added.

 

Beyond free testing and two weeks of paid sick and family leave for those affected by the virus, the bill also includes enhanced unemployment benefits and bolstered food programs.

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Both Democrats, who control the majority in the House, and Mnuchin made concessions, Pelosi told reporters ahead of the vote.

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“We were willing to work in a bipartisan way, even though we could have gone much sooner, much faster,” Pelosi said.

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Coronavirus outbreak: ‘I don’t take responsibility at all’ Trump says on lag in COVID-19 testing

Democrats had initially sought to create a permanent paid sick-leave benefit for the third of U.S. workers who currently lose wages when they stay home due to illness, but Republicans said that was a dealbreaker.

It would expand safety-net programs that help people weather economic downturns, including low-income schoolchildren who risk losing access to free breakfast and lunch if their schools are shuttered. It would bolster unemployment aid and the “food stamps” program that helps 34 million low-income people buy groceries.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What happens if Trump signs emergency declaration over COVID-19?

Federal support for Medicaid would also be increased, giving states a cushion to fund the low-income health insurance program that Trump has repeatedly tried to scale back.

The bill does not include the $1 trillion payroll tax cut that Trump and other Republicans had sought.

Pelosi said the House would begin work next week on another round of legislation to assist hard-hit industries and the broader economy. Markets have swung back up after consecutive days of dropping shares, including the worst day on Wall Street since 1987 on Thursday.

Coronavirus outbreak: Donald Trump declares national emergency over COVID-19
Coronavirus outbreak: Donald Trump declares national emergency over COVID-19

Earlier Friday, Trump’s declaration of a national emergency freed up as much as $50 billion in federal aid for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak.

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He also announced a range of executive actions, including a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities with drive-through locations, as his administration has come under fire for being too slow in making the test available.

Trump said he doesn’t “take responsibility at all” over the slow rollout of testing.

—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters