Battle heats up for phase-four coronavirus relief bill

The Senate’s passage of a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday is setting the stage for negotiations on an even bigger package that could rival the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month.

The legislation would funnel tens of billions if not hundreds of billions to state and local governments and could address infrastructure spending and election security.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Tuesday called for Congress to begin thinking about “CARES 2” after the Senate deal, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned of the growing amount of debt the U.S. is adding, previewing the battle to come.

Speaking to reporters, Schumer said “we will need a big, strong and active [fourth bill]. It’ll have to come very soon. The needs are large and great.”

But McConnell hit the pause button.

“I think it’s also time to begin to think about the amount of debt we’re adding to our country and the future impact of that,” he said. “Let’s weigh this very carefully, because the future of our country in terms of the amount of debt that we’re adding up is a matter of genuine concern.”

Schumer is under tremendous pressure to deliver money to New York’s state government, and President Trump, who met with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) at the White House on Tuesday, has also expressed support for helping cash-strapped local governments.

Schumer told Democratic senators in a conference call Tuesday that “there will be a phase-four bill.”

He also said Democrats would push other priorities for that legislation, including federal assistance for people having trouble paying rent, according to a Democratic source. Schumer also cited the need for funds for election reform, hazard pay for essential workers, including doctors, nurses and grocery store clerks, and funding for the U.S. Postal Service.

Pelosi has said about $4 billion will be needed to help states transition to vote-by-mail programs to allow full participation in the November elections if the pandemic is still forcing people to stay at home. The CARES Act provided only $400 million.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) on Monday unveiled a proposal to create a $500 billion fund to help state and local governments. 

That’s the amount being requested by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is the chairman of the National Governors Association, and Cuomo, the association’s vice chairman. 

The big question is how much of it can get by McConnell.

Fiscal conservatives are complaining about the amount of money spent so far. 

“The virus bailouts have already cost over $2 trillion. Our annual deficit this year will approach $4 trillion. We can’t continue on this course,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor as he stood to oppose the interim relief package.

While Paul voted against the measure in a ceremonial voice vote, he did not raise any procedural objection to force his colleagues to hold a series of formal roll call votes.

McConnell resisted including more money for state and local governments in the $484 billion interim package, arguing that much of the $150 billion appropriated to stabilize state budgets in the CARES Act hadn’t yet gone “out the door.”

The GOP leader has called on the Senate to be “nimble” and “patch holes as we see them.” He says additional legislation should “fix urgent problems” instead of advance “preexisting partisan wish lists.”

“The Senate is prepared to stand by the American people, watching the CARES Act go into effect and adding funding when necessary to key programs that are working well,” he said on the floor Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor Tuesday that Congress should include significant infrastructure spending in CARES 2 to set the groundwork for a strong economic recovery once the pandemic passes.

“We have so much more work to do for our nation in these unprecedented times, whether it’s confirming judges or phase four of an infrastructure package that we should be working on,” he said.

President Trump and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) have also endorsed a significant increase in infrastructure spending. Trump last month on Twitter called for a “VERY BIG & BOLD” infrastructure package totaling $2 trillion. He said the phase-four package should be “focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the great infrastructure of our Country!”

Republican lawmakers are also expected to push for reforms to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which is set to receive a $320 billion infusion of new federal money from the interim relief package.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on Tuesday proposed an amendment to restrict PPP loans, which would be forgiven if employers keep workers on payroll, to businesses that show a substantial reduction in revenue due to the coronavirus.

His proposal would also bar banks from setting loan requirements that “actively withhold help from those in need.”

“Unfortunately, millions of taxpayer dollars are not making it to the small businesses truly in need,” he said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has also proposed a series of reforms to the small-business lending program to make it easier for small companies to obtain loans.

Democratic leaders on Tuesday said there is also Republican support for shoring up cash-strapped employer-sponsored pension programs. Democrats tried to include money for multi-employer pension plans facing insolvency in the CARES Act but fell short.

Pelosi and Schumer on Tuesday signaled the issue would come up for discussion again in the next round of talks.

“On pensions, I called President Trump and urged him to be for it, and he was. The block there was Mitch McConnell, but there are a lot of Republican senators who want to help out on the pension issue,” Schumer said.

Pelosi noted “we had a large number [of Republicans] helping us on the hospital issues.”

Democrats asked for $100 billion in new money for hospitals in the interim package and secured $75 billion.

“We always want more because the crisis continues to grow,” she added.

The Senate and House are scheduled to return the week of May 4, and some lawmakers are expressing impatience about getting back to work.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Tuesday said the fact that Congress has been in recess since passing the CARES Act “is simply unacceptable.”

“If COVID-19 requires Congress to act, then it requires Congress to convene,” he said.

Asked how Congress can put together another massive relief package, on the scale of the CARES Act, while lawmakers have to follow social distancing and other health guidelines, Schumer predicted they would find a way.

“The needs of the public will have to be predominant, not our needs,” he said when asked about the difficulty of negotiating during the pandemic. “We will listen to medical experts, we will listen to them because we set an example … but the needs of the public will have to be predominant.”

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill Cassidy Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Coronavirus Dan Sullivan Donald Trump Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Paycheck Protection Program Rand Paul Richard Shelby

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