WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump went to Capitol Hill for lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans — in what was perhaps one of the largest social gatherings still happening in locked-down Washington — as officials consider next steps in the coronavirus response.
The administration launched a day of appearances with GOP allies as the White House and Congress consider another pandemic aid package.
Trump attended the GOP lunch "to thank senators for their work during this unprecedented crisis, discuss the progress safely opening up America again, and explore the path to economic prosperity for all Americans,” said Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere.
The U.S. Capitol building remains largely closed with the House away due to health risks, but the Senate is in session and the 53-senator GOP majority still hashes out policy behind closed doors over lunch on Tuesdays.
With new social distancing restrictions, the Senate gathering was held in a bigger room across the street from the Capitol rather than the regular one steps from the Senate chamber. Many senators were masked and seating was limited to three to a table.
It was among the few known gatherings still happening in the nation’s capital, which remains under stay-home orders through June 8 as the virus outbreak tallies new cases and fatalities. One GOP senator and dozens of Capitol Hill workers and staff have tested positive for the virus. Senate Democrats skip in-person meetings and convene weekly by conference call.
Trump set off alarms when he disclosed this week that he is taking a drug, hydroxycholorquine, despite grave warnings from health officials and the U.S. government that the anti-malaria drug is unproven against Covid-19, and carries severe health risks, including death.
The president's lunch visits are often free-wheeling, free-flowing conversations and various topics were likely discussed.
Earlier Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence. and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin huddled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for a previously scheduled meeting.
They discussed the COVID-19 response and the economy, said a person unauthorized to describe the meeting and granted anonymity.
But it did not appear to change Republicans' outlook that more funds are needed for the pandemic response.
“I don’t see the need right now," McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol.
He said they discussed different items, “the economy, the number of states that are opening back up,” and the outlook for virus testing. "Getting a lot of updates.”
While House Democrats passed a new virus aid package last week, Senate Republicans say they're not interested in providing more funds until they assess how the $2 trillion in already approved money to fight the virus and improve the economy is being spent.
McConnell has said there's no urgency to act on the latest $3 trillion bill from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He has declared the package a “seasonal catalogue” of liberal programs.
Pelosi's package includes $900 billion to states and cities to shore up their budgets during the crisis and prevent mass layoffs of state and local government workers. Regional tax revenues have plummeted during the shutdown. There's also money for more virus testing, a fresh round of $1,200 rebate checks for cash-strapped Americans and other aid.
Republicans prefer to wait to see if efforts to open up the economy can provide a kick-start and lessen the need for more aid.
“Very helpful,” said Mnuchin as he exited the meeting on his way to testify before the Senate Banking Committee. “Good update.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.