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Oil prices drop as US economic package stumbles in Senate

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks with the media after the motion failed in their attempt to wrap up work on coronavirus economic aid legislation in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2020.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks with the media after the motion failed in their attempt to wrap up work on coronavirus economic aid legislation in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2020. © REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

Oil prices fell at the open in Asia on Monday after a trillion-dollar Senate proposal to help the coronavirus-hit American economy was defeated and death tolls soared across Europe and the US. 

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Brent crude futures fell $1.09, or 4 percent, to $25.89 a barrel by 0209 GMT. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures was down 15 cents, or 0.7 percent, at $22.48 a barrel.

Oil prices have fallen for four straight weeks and have given up about 60% since the start of the year. Prices of everything from coal to copper have also been hit by the crisis, while markets in bonds and stocks enter rarely charted territory.

The coronavirus, which has infected more than 325,000 and killed over 14,000 worldwide, has disrupted business, travel and daily life. Many oil companies have rushed to cut spending and some producers have already begun putting employees on furlough.

Prices have fallen to multi-year lows in recent weeks as lockdowns and travel restrictions to fight the virus hit demand, and top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia engage in a price war. 

The latest drop came after a trillion-dollar Senate proposal to rescue the US economy was defeated after receiving zero support from Democrats, and with five Republicans absent from the chamber because of virus-related quarantines.

The measure faltered after it failed to get the necessary 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to clear a procedural hurdle after days of negotiations, with 47 senators voting in favour and 47 opposed.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, frustrated over the deadlock on a major coronavirus response bill, late on Sunday announced a procedural vote will be held early on Monday on a bill that senators already rejected.

McConnell, a Republican, said that unless a bipartisan deal is reached before 9.45am Monday (1345 GMT), he will force a second vote on a bill Democrats opposed.

In the meantime, talks were continuing in the hope of a compromise to what could be a $1 trillion-plus bill responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

The bill is Congress' third effort to blunt the economic toll of a disease that has killed at least 420 people in the United States and sickened more than 33,000, leading governors to order nearly a third of the nation's population to stay at home and putting much business activity on hold.

The bill includes financial aid for regular Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, including airlines.

Democrats raised objections to the Senate bill throughout the day, with top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer saying it had "many, many problems" and would benefit corporate interests at the expense of hospitals, healthcare workers, cities and states.

The failure of the measure to move forward sends Democrats and Republicans back to the bargaining table. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said that Democrats in that chamber will begin crafting an alternative bill.

After the vote, Schumer said more money was needed for community health centres, nursing homes, masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment and aid to state and local governments.

Schumer added that "changes to the legislation are being made even as we speak" but there still were "too many problems in the legislation". He said he thought those problems could be overcome in the next 24 hours.

On the Senate floor, a visibly angry McConnell accused Democrats of obstruction.

"If we aren't able to act tomorrow, it will be because of our colleagues on the other side continuing to dicker when the country expects us to come together and address this problem," he said.

Lawmakers were mindful that a failure to reach a deal on Sunday could batter already reeling financial markets on Monday.

But Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said that would not rush Democrats into a deal they don't want.

"Markets always come back," he said.

In a sign of the disease's spread, Republican Senator Rand Paul on Sunday said he had tested positive. Republican Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney said they would self-quarantine as a result.

At a White House briefing on Sunday, President Donald Trump said he still had hope that a massive aid package could pass Congress swiftly.

"They are very close to getting a deal done," Trump said. "So I'd be surprised if they didn't and if they don't, I think frankly the American people will be very upset with the Democrats because the Republicans are ready to approve a deal. The only reason a deal couldn't get done is pure politics."

Vice President Mike Pence said 254,000 Americans have been tested for the virus and slightly more than 30,000 have tested positive.

Trump said he had activated the National Guard in the three states hardest hit by the outbreak: California, New York and Washington.

The Senate bill's controversial provisions included those aimed at helping corporations, rather than workers, as well as those allowing the government to delay disclosing what firms, states or municipalities had received aid for up to six months.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the November US presidential election, blasted the president's handling of the crisis.

"President Trump neglected, minimized, and lied about this virus," Biden said in a statement. "Stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told "Fox News Sunday" the package would include loans for small businesses, direct deposits that could give an average family of four $3,000, and up to $4 trillion in liquidity for the US Federal Reserve to help businesses get through the next 90 to 120 days.

A Republican-drafted bill seen by Reuters gives the US Treasury authority to provide up to $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees and other investments in eligible businesses, states and municipalities during the crisis.

Of this, up to $50 billion could provide loans and loan guarantees for passenger airlines, $8 billion for cargo air carriers and $17 billion for businesses critical to national security.

The remaining $425 billion would be available for loans, loan guarantees and other investments for the Fed to provide liquidity to help the financial system lend to businesses, states and municipalities.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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