This week: Congress set for bipartisan coronavirus talks as clock ticks
Lawmakers are preparing to start bipartisan negotiations over a fifth coronavirus package as the talks threaten to cut into the August recess.
House Democratic leaders are already warning members that they need to be flexible with their August travel plans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, says he’s hoping to get a deal in a “few” weeks; the Senate is currently scheduled to leave by Aug. 7.
The start of bipartisan negotiations comes after Congress’s first week back in Washington was consumed with Senate Republicans and the White House trying to line up behind, and having high-profile fights over, a proposal.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made rare back-to-back trips to the Capitol on Saturday and Sunday to meet with Republican staff as they raced to finalize the package.
Meadows, leaving the Capitol on Sunday, indicated that they were down to a handful of items that he hoped could be closed out imminently.
“It’s just down to a handful of items where we believe a phone call here and there should be able to resolve it,” Meadows said.
Senate Republicans are expected to unveil their package on Monday that will be used as their opening offer for negotiations with Democrats. They had hoped to drop the legislation on Thursday but had to punt amid ongoing negotiations with the administration.
The GOP proposal is expected to cost approximately $1 trillion. That’s a third of the roughly $3 trillion bill passed by House Democrats in May. But the price tag, which is likely to creep upward in negotiations, is already getting public pushback from a handful of conservative and libertarian-minded senators.
“Until we clearly take a look at what we’ve already done … until we redirect, repurpose what we haven’t already spent, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to be authorizing even a dime more,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
The package is expected to include $105 billion for schools, $16 billion in new testing money, more flexibility for how states and local governments can use $150 billion appropriated by Congress in March and a five-year shield from coronavirus lawsuits except in the cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
It’s also expected to include a second round of stimulus checks. Mnuchin has said it will mirror the language in the March bill that provided a one-time check of $1,200 to individuals who make up to $75,000 per year. The amount of the check was scaled down until it hit an income ceiling of $99,000 per year for an individual, where it was phased out altogether.
One of the final areas of contention was how to replace the $600-per week expansion of unemployment benefits included in the March bill, which began to expire on Monday.
Mnuchin said the GOP bill will transition to providing roughly 70 percent of what an individual made before they were laid off. He and Meadows note that the administration has been working to address the technological issues that prevented matching unemployment to previous wages, which was floated during the March negotiations.
But some GOP senators have warned that there needs to be a transition built into the legislation to give states time to adjust during which the federal government would provide a flat amount to increase the unemployment benefit provided by states.
The Republican proposal is already being dismissed by Democrats who have warned that it does not meet the moment, when coronavirus cases are climbing across the country, the economy remains rocky and schools are debating bringing students back into classrooms.
“Leader McConnell, sitting in your own office, writing a bill, and then demanding the other side support it is not anyone’s idea of bipartisanship. And even worse, it appears that the developing Republican proposal is really unlikely to meet the moment,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said late last week.
But the Democratic bill has been similarly dismissed by Republicans, underscoring the difficulty ahead to getting a bipartisan agreement quickly.
Democrats want to extend the $600 per week of unemployment insurance through the end of the year, bolster areas like worker protections and food assistance and are asking for hundreds of billions in new assistance for states and local governments.
Given the broad differences between the parties, and the tight timelines, both Meadows and Mnuchin are pitching the idea of first passing a “skinny” relief bill that would pair together unemployment, liability and schools, and then negotiating and passing a second bill on the remaining issues.
“I see us being able to provide unemployment insurance, maybe a retention credit, to keep people from being displaced or brought back into the workplace, helping with our schools,” Meadows told ABC’s “This Week.”
“If we can do that along with liability protection, perhaps we put that forward, get that passed as we can negotiate on the rest of the bill in the weeks to come,” he added.
In addition to the negotiations over the fifth coronavirus proposal, the House will take up two bills related to child care during the health pandemic.
The House is expected to vote on one bill that would provide grants to child care providers and a second bill that aims to expand access to child care. Parents and lawmakers are publicly questioning what happens if in-person classes remain suspended and child care services are scaled back or closed, but parents are expected to resume in-office work.
The late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a long-time congressman and civil rights icon, will lie in state in the Capitol this week.
Pelosi and McConnell, in a joint statement, said that an invitation-only ceremony will be held on Monday afternoon.
Members of the public will be able pay their respects on Monday and Tuesday with a public viewing on the East Front Steps of the Capitol, according to the congressional leaders.
Lewis, 80, died on July 17 after battling pancreatic cancer. The memorial at the Capitol is one of several being held in Lewis’s honor. His family held a memorial on Saturday in his hometown of Troy, Ala.
His casket was escorted across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama for the last time on Sunday. Alabama state troopers met Lewis’s casket on the opposite end of the bridge before escorting him to Montgomery, Ala., where he lay at the state Capitol on Sunday.
Lawmakers debated how to honor Lewis amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has required new social distancing measures to try to prevent the spread of the disease and remade day-to-day American life in recent months.
The Capitol Police said on Friday that while it was recommended that members of the public pay their respects virtually, for those who choose to attend the public viewing on Monday or Tuesday social distancing will be enforced and masks will be required to enter the line.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced last week that House Democrats are planning to unveil voting rights legislation named in Lewis’s honor.
The measure — which is slated to be offered by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — is expected to rename a bill restoring key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bans racial discrimination in voting rules, after Lewis.
“I think all of those things are part of the discussion,” Hoyer said. “There can be no greater tribute to John Lewis than to having a bill passed that protects and affirms the right for which he worked all his life.”
The House is set to vote on a second package of government funding bills that will fold together seven of the 12 fiscal 2021 spending bills.
The chamber approved its first package last week that bundled four of the 12 bills: state and foreign operations; agriculture; interior and environment; and military construction and veterans affairs.
This week they are taking up a package that includes: defense; commerce, justice and science; energy and water development; financial services and general government; homeland security; labor, health and human services and Education; transportation, housing, and urban development.
The bill is expected to pass along party lines, with the homeland security funding being the most controversial component.
It was unclear up until last week whether the Department of Homeland Security provision would be included in the bill, with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus urging leaders to exclude it from the package.
“We are alarmed to learn that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE is signaling in court filings that it will not release parents and children together and is instead persisting in pursuing a needlessly cruel approach that will result in family separation,” 84 Democratic lawmakers led by CHC Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said in a statement .
“We are also dismayed that ICE has failed to release children with their parents in the multiple weeks that have passed since Judge Gee’s June 26 order directing ICE to release children in its facilities. We therefore write to you, once again, to demand that you release all families in ICE detention facilities together immediately.”
The House action comes as the Senate Appropriations Committee has marked up none of the 12 bills and are not expected to before leaving for the August recess.
Appropriations staff are currently locked in the coronavirus negotiations and, even before that, the Senate Appropriations Committee work has been at a standstill because of disagreements over amendments.
Congress has until Sept. 30 to either pass all 12 funding bills or a continuing resolution (CR) that would extend fiscal 2020 spending levels. Lawmakers were already expected to pass a CR to keep the government funded until after the November election.
While coronavirus negotiations start behind closed doors, the Senate will take up another tranche of Trump’s nominees on the floor.
The Senate will hold a final vote on William Scott Hardy’s nomination to be a district judge on Monday at 5:30 p.m.
After that McConnell has teed up votes on David Cleveland Joseph’s nomination to be a judge for the western district of Louisiana, Dana Wade’s nomination to be an assistant secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Marvin Kaplan’s nomination to be a member of the National Labor Relations Board.