U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise says he has been working the phones ferociously over the past several days from his Jefferson Parish home, where the GOP minority whip has been cooped up and under quarantine after a colleague from Florida tested positive for coronavirus.
Scalise said he’s taking the time for daily temperature readings — “I’m 98.1 degrees,” he said — but otherwise the respite from Capitol Hill hasn’t been a break at all. Scalise is trying to put his mark on a proposed stimulus package of roughly $1 trillion aimed at helping the economy survive the deepening coronavirus crisis.
He’s chatted with President Donald Trump and top officials in the Trump administration, pushing ideas Scalise thinks might help key Louisiana industries weather the crisis. And Scalise said he’s also talked with a long procession of business leaders and lobbying groups, including local restaurateurs, the CEOs of major hotel chains, oil industry groups and chemical plant operators.
Scalise said he hasn’t developed any symptoms of coronavirus. He began self-quarantining after U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart tested positive. Scalise and Diaz-Balart had met at length in the week before the Florida Republican’s diagnosis.
An idea Scalise said he’s pushing is to give banks more leeway to waive loan payments and interest for up to 90 days. That, Scalise said, would give businesses and homeowners hit hard by the coronavirus response desperately needed “breathing room” to try to weather the shutdown.
Banking industry groups have expressed interest in the idea, Scalise said, but banks might end up in trouble with federal regulators under current banking laws if large numbers of unpaid loans piled up on a bank’s balance sheet.
“I talked to President Trump about this last night and he really likes the idea,” said Scalise, adding that he’d also pitched the idea to other Trump administration officials, including FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams.
Scalise borrowed the loan forbearance idea from the response to Hurricane Katrina, when federal bank regulators gave local banks similar leeway. The Katrina response, Scalise said, could offer a number of lessons for the current economic crisis, as both brought economies to sudden — and protracted — stops.
And the nonstop phone calls with business owners potentially facing months without any cash flow, Scalise said, also reminded him of his work as a state legislator through the 2005 storm.
“There are a lot of similarities with the days of Katrina,” said Scalise.
Scalise said House Republicans have been finding common ground with Democrats on ideas for the massive coronavirus response package, whose price tag is expected to top $1 trillion.
But Scalise also hinted at partisan divisions over how to respond to the crisis. Response measures need to provide “short-term relief,” Scalise said, but shouldn’t go further and overhaul the country’s social safety net programs or make long-term changes to the health care system.
He dismissed, for example, proposals by Democrats to forgive student loan debt instead of simply pausing interest payments.
“We’re not talking about permanent policy,” said Scalise. “We’re talking about things that would last through the length of this crisis.”