Five fights for Congress’s fifth coronavirus bill
Lawmakers are clashing over a potential fifth coronavirus relief bill, raising early questions about how quickly Congress will be able to reach an agreement on more aid.
Congress has spent nearly $2.8 trillion to counter the health and economic fallout from the rapid spread of the disease. Roughly 26 million people have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks, while more than 965,435 have tested positive and more than 54,856 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Though the previous four bills have passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, congressional leaders are clashing over the timeline and details of the somewhat confusingly named “phase four” legislation, which would actually be the fifth bill to respond to the crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is calling for a pause before considering another bill. Democratic leadership, however, is moving quickly in hopes of having a bill ready for consideration shortly after lawmakers return to Washington as soon as May 4.
Here are five fights to watch as Congress hashes out its next steps.
State and local governments
Additional help for state and local governments has emerged as an early flash point.
McConnell sparked a political firestorm when he said, in response to a question from radio host Hugh Hewitt, that he would support allowing states to declare bankruptcy as they face huge budget holes sparked by the economic impact of the coronavirus.
States cannot declare bankruptcy under current law and, unlike the federal government, every state but Vermont has a balanced budget requirement.
McConnell characterized Republicans as being cautious of providing more federal assistance to state and local governments, saying they weren’t interested in “solving problems that they created for themselves over the years with their pension program.”
But congressional Democratic leaders have said that securing state and local money is one of their top priorities for the next bill. The National Governors Association — led by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) — are asking for an additional $500 billion.
Providing more assistance also has some support among Republican lawmakers including Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who has teamed up with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to introduce legislation that would match the request from governors.
Changes to small business aid
Lawmakers are eyeing additional changes in how help for small businesses is distributed.
Congress has provided nearly $660 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which is aimed at providing loans to businesses with fewer than 500 employees.
One question is whether lawmakers will continue funding the PPP in future pieces of legislation.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said during a White House coronavirus task force briefing that they expect the latest round “is the last tranche” but added a caveat that they could “always reconsider that.”
Lawmakers have proposed including new strings for additional funding that would tighten who can get help after reports that large chain restaurants were able to qualify for tens of millions of dollars in loans.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, argued that the loans haven’t “been limited to those who truly need them.” He’s pitching limiting loan forgiveness under the program, including not allowing the loan to be forgiven if a business’s taxable 2020 income exceeds its 2019 income.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), meanwhile, has proposed upping the financial hardship businesses have to show to qualify for the loans and also prohibiting banks from adding additional requirements — something that was reportedly happening during the early rollout of the program.
Democrats are pushing to include funding in future coronavirus relief measures that would ensure states have enough funding to carry out elections by mail. Republicans so far have resisted, arguing it would be vulnerable to fraud.
Democrats, however, are under pressure to include new assistance in Congress’s next bill as progressives hammer the issue.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say on Friday how much money Democrats would try to include, saying she wouldn’t negotiate through the media. But House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said during a conference call with progressives groups on Friday that he would push to include $1.8 billion for mail-in voting and other “alternatives”
“I don’t think this president wants to have an election at all. I think he’s going to do everything he can to circumvent people going to the polls in November,” Clyburn said during the call.
Trump, who cast a mail-in ballot in Florida last month, has urged Republicans to “fight very hard” against “state-wide mail-in voting.”
House Democrats previously tried to get $4 billion in election-related funding into last month’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill, including a requirement that states make voting by mail an option for all registered voters. In the end, they got $400 million in election funds included in the version signed into law, but no mandates on how states use the funds.
One issue that Democrats were not able to get into the “interim” coronavirus bill: a boost in food assistance.
Democrats wanted a 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the legislation passed by Congress last week after getting more than $15 billion for the program included in last month’s $2.2 trillion package. Republicans, however, objected.
Senate Democrats have introduced their own proposal to increase the baseline for SNAP benefits by 30 percent and expand benefits to individuals living in U.S. territories.
The Department of Agriculture announced last week that it was sending out 40 percent more benefits amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus.
Trump and Mnuchin have been publicly and privately urging lawmakers to include infrastructure as part of the next phase of Congress’s response to the coronavirus.
“President Trump has been demanding a COVID 4, in fact, because he said he wants to do infrastructure in it. He said that to us, Mnuchin, [White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows have said it to us repeatedly,” Pelosi told reporters.
There is bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill in trying to move an infrastructure package. Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), a member of GOP leadership, told Fox News that “some infrastructure spending is appropriate.”
But the administration and lawmakers have tried, and failed, for years to get a deal amid hang-ups over how it would be paid for. And there’s no sign yet that they’ve reached a deal that would let them move forward.
McConnell has said that he supports the interest in infrastructure but warned recently that “it would take a lot of convincing to convince me that we should do transportation in a way that’s not credibly paid.”