The cost of coronavirus went from zero to 60 in nothing flat this week as President Trump and congressional Democrats tried to outbid each other, offering massive plans to fend off a health and economic doomsday, with price tags rising to nearly $1 trillion.
Exact plans were still being worked out, and the proposals were in rough form Thursday, leaving scorekeepers struggling to calculate the total hits to the federal budget, should any of them become law.
But the early math was staggering.
Mr. Trump’s wish list includes a payroll tax cut to put money in consumers’ pockets. He has said he wants to see the payroll tax disappear for the rest of this year, which the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says could cost $840 billion.
Add to that another $50 billion in emergency lending powers at the Small Business Administration, which he announced Wednesday, and the chance for taxpayers to put off filing, keeping $200 billion more in Americans’ pockets for now, and the price tag nears $1 trillion.
Democrats’ wish list includes government-backed paid leave for employees who can’t work because of the virus, a boost to unemployment insurance and food programs, and an infusion of cash for states whose Medicaid systems are under pressure from coronavirus patients.
The American Action Forum says depending on how the paid sick leave operates, its price tag could run from $30 billion to as much as $180 billion.
“You need to know more about the parameters,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, AAF president and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.
Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, told colleagues the bill is just a start, and they’ll be back for more later once they see other needs out there.
“I don’t think you should assume that what we’re doing today is comprehensive,” he said.
The price tag is a major escalation from last week, when the bidding was between Mr. Trump’s $1.25 billion coronavirus request and Democrats countered with $8.3 billion. Democrats won that fight and the final bill ended up at $8.3 billion.
GOP aides said Democrats are likely to get much of what they’re seeking this time around as well — though they predicted Mr. Trump will also get some wins down the road.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to agree Thursday.
“We have to find our common ground, work together to get this done as soon as possible because we have other needs,” she told reporters. “We will have to address this issue further. And if some things that they might want in this bill that aren’t there, there could be another bill shortly down the road.”
Democrats in the Senate tried to power through some of their plans Thursday afternoon. They were blocked by Republicans who said the ideas are under consideration, but are part of negotiations between Mr. Trump’s team and Mrs. Pelosi.
Meanwhile, the House postponed scheduled votes on Democrats’ plans, vowing to return Friday for action.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said there’s too much uncertainty now to know what a final coronavirus price tag will be, because the U.S. doesn’t have a good handle on its exposure yet.
He said Congress’s top spending priority should be figuring that out.
“That should be a moon shot on getting tests out to everybody,” he said. “I don’t care how expensive that is. Until we know the extent of things we can’t gauge anything else.”
Second, he said, is sending an infusion of money to states to buy ventilators, hospital beds or whatever else they need to keep their medical systems from getting overwhelmed.
“Those will also do the most good for the economy,” he said. “People see an effective response, they’re going to be less terrified.”
After that, he said, the travel industry is going to be hurting and will need targeted relief.
But he said it’s too early to be talking about massive economic stimulus plans like Mr. Trump’s payroll tax cut, because there’s just not enough information on what the challenge is.
“Is this a onetime stimulus or are we facing COVID for an extensive period of time?” he said. “We need to learn some more.”