(Washington Post) – A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a coronavirus aid proposal worth about $908 billion on Tuesday, aiming to break a months-long partisan impasse over emergency federal relief for the U.S. economy amid the ongoing pandemic.
The new plan came amid a flurry of congressional jostling about the shape of economic relief, with House Democrats assembling a new proposal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) creating a new plan and President-elect Joe Biden calling for a massive government response. The growing calls for action have not led to a unified approach, prompting political leaders to forge ahead in different directions.
Still, the new actions and statements Tuesday may reflect movement toward some level of pandemic relief for millions of Americans. Congress has faced increasing pressure to approve additional economic aid since talks between the White House and House Democrats collapsed, first over the summer and then again in the fall ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
While the negotiations among leadership and the administration were stuck, senators in both parties worked together for weeks on a proposal to break the logjam. Several centrist senators — including Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Angus King (I-Maine), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) — as well as members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus held a news conference Tuesday morning to push their proposal as a template for legislation that could pass Congress as the economy faces increasing strain from a fall surge in coronavirus cases.
“Our action to provide emergency relief is needed now more than ever before. The people need to know we are not going to leave until we get something accomplished,” Manchin said, flanked by about half a dozen lawmakers at the Capitol. “I’m committed to seeing this through.”
McConnell disclosed Tuesday that senior Republicans received a new coronavirus relief offer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday night. Democratic aides declined to disclose details of their offer, and Schumer called it a “private proposal to help us move the ball forward.”
Senate Republican leaders circulated a slimmed-down plan Tuesday that would probably be fiercely opposed by Democrats. The measure includes a liability shield for businesses and more small-business assistance. It would provide short-term, limited jobless aid but no additional funding for state and local governments or help for cash-strapped transit agencies.
The plan represented a conservative turn from the Senate Republican leader following the defeat of President Trump, who had pushed the GOP to support more spending ahead of his election. In September, McConnell pushed for a federal supplement of unemployment benefits of $300 per week. The latest proposal from his office would extend base unemployment benefits and a program for gig workers and independent contractors for about one month but would otherwise not provide supplemental federal unemployment benefits — a reversal in Republicans’ positions. A spokesman for McConnell did not immediately respond to a question about the change.
The McConnell bill also reintroduces a Republican plan to allow diners to claim a tax deduction on their meal expenditures, a provision pushed by the business lobby but viewed skeptically by economists and some Republicans.
“We just don’t have time to waste time. We have a couple of weeks left here,” McConnell said. “Obviously, it does require bipartisan support to get out of Congress, but it requires a presidential signature.”
By contrast, the plan circulated by the bipartisan group of senators is light on details but seeks to reach a middle ground on numerous contentious economic issues.
It would provide $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits for roughly four months — a lower amount than the $600 per week Democrats sought, while still offering substantial relief to tens of millions of jobless Americans. The agreement includes $160 billion in funding for state and local governments, a key Democratic priority opposed by most Republicans, as well as a temporary moratorium on some coronavirus-related lawsuits against companies and other entities — a key Republican priority that most Democrats oppose. The measure also includes funding for small businesses, schools, health care, transit authorities and student loans, among other measures.
Aides close to the effort described details as fluid and subject to change. Few outside the group of Senate negotiators endorsed the proposal Tuesday, with some Republican senators complaining the $908 billion price tag was too steep.
But the substantive efforts at a compromise in the Senate reflect growing agitation from influential senators against the hard-line stances of their respective leaders, who have struggled to agree on another round of coronavirus relief aid as the economy continues to suffer under the weight of the pandemic.
McConnell and Schumer have traded barbs, with McConnell on Monday accusing Democrats of “all-or-nothing obstruction.” Schumer said in a floor speech that “both sides must give” but also trashed McConnell for advancing a GOP wish list in stimulus talks.
Some lawmakers have hoped that elements of a bipartisan stimulus deal could be added to the spending bill required to avoid a Dec. 11 government shutdown, although that could complicate the must-pass legislation. Nonetheless, McConnell suggested Tuesday that the spending bill could be an avenue to pass targeted coronavirus relief.
Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke Tuesday afternoon about the government funding bill. As for the bipartisan Senate framework, Mnuchin said he would review it, although the plan got a much icier reaction from the White House.
“The Trump administration has been in ongoing talks with Leader McConnell and [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy about a targeted COVID relief plan,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “The $908 billion proposal has not been a topic of discussion.”
Pelosi said in a statement: ″Additional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame duck session.”
Biden, who introduced his economic team Tuesday, expressed support for some form of coronavirus relief now and signaled to Republicans that more aid will be necessary next year after his inauguration in January.
“Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief to address these urgent needs,” Biden said in prepared remarks in Wilmington, Del. “But any package passed in a lame-duck session is likely to be, at best, just a start.”
Asked whether he supported the $908 billion stimulus proposal, Biden told reporters: “I just heard about it. I’ll take a look at it when I get back.” Asked whether he had spoken to McConnell, he said, “Not yet.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat, was involved in the discussions but did not appear with lawmakers at the Tuesday news conference. In a floor speech, Durbin cited disagreements with the group’s decisions, arguing that it should have excluded the liability shield, but he said: “I’m still willing to work on it. … Let us not make the best the enemy of the good.”
Durbin called for the legislation to come to the Senate floor, despite his reservations.
“I’m not happy with a lot of these figures,” he said. “But that’s what it’s all about in this world of the United States Congress: You come together, willing to sit down and listen to the other side and, if necessary, compromise.”
Economists have warned of devastating consequences for the economy and millions of Americans if no stimulus deal is passed. A number of relief programs are set to expire at the end of the year. Twelve million Americans are on pace to lose their jobless benefits, and protections for renters and student borrowers are also set to expire, along with a federal paid-family-leave program.
The White House has largely abandoned its aggressive push for stimulus since Trump lost the Nov. 3 presidential election. It is also unclear whether Biden will push Democrats to accept a smaller package, although some of his economic advisers have been adamant that a stimulus deal must be passed quickly, even if it is smaller than what Democrats prefer.
Republicans continued to try making that case Tuesday.
“I think $900 billion would do a lot more good right now than $2 trillion will do in March,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the GOP leadership. “This is an important time to step up if we can.”
The bipartisan agreement includes about $288 billion in funding for small businesses, including through the Paycheck Protection Program and other aid. It also includes $45 billion for transportation agencies, $82 billion for education, $26 billion in nutrition assistance and $16 billion in health care, including to help with coronavirus testing and tracing, and vaccine distribution.
The effort was expected to leave out a second round of $1,200 stimulus payments, as a way to bring down its overall cost, even though Trump and Pelosi support it.
Hanging over the talks is the concern among Democrats that any package passed now will sap the willingness of congressional Republicans to pursue another, larger bill next year under Biden. That tension helped derail previous rounds of negotiations ahead of the election, and even now, members of the bipartisan group trying to break the logjam express different views on whether multiple rounds of aid are feasible.
“I believe this is the last bite at the apple,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. “At some point in the second quarter [of 2021], the pandemic is essentially over, most likely. And so, if there’s a thought that, well, we’ll do this now and then we’ll do another one at the end of January or February, I think that’s a pipe dream, personally.”
But Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a co-chair of the caucus, called the emerging bipartisan plan a “great down payment” that could be supplemented in the months ahead.
“Now’s the best time to fight, to get as much as we can to help people now. But we’re going to have keep fighting to get more resources as it’s needed, and we’ll do it again under a new president,” Gottheimer said. “But this whole idea that we shouldn’t do anything now because we may get more later — well, that didn’t work for us last time. And now here we are, and I just don’t think the country is going to accept the fact that we’re going to say, well, we’ve got to wait.”
The measure faced early opposition from both flanks, with liberals opposed to the liability shield and conservatives opposed to spending more money to help the economy. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, criticized the proposal for leaving out another round of $1,200 stimulus checks. Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative group FreedomWorks, said conservative GOP senators probably would reject the measure because of its cost. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are among those who have resisted another spending package.
“Anything that adds to the deficit is a non-starter,” Pye said.
At the news conference, Romney stressed that he is a deficit hawk and that the proposal costs far less than the $1.8 trillion that White House officials pushed earlier. He also said the legislation would be partly funded by more than $500 billion in unspent money from the Cares Act stimulus measure passed in March, reducing the amount of new spending.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, spoke positively of the bipartisan effort and urged lawmakers to quickly approve emergency financial help.
“More will be needed later, but immediate relief is needed now,” she said. “That’s what the senators are talking about. We cannot wait.”