Obstacles mount for deal on next coronavirus bill

Lawmakers are set to start returning to Washington on Monday nowhere near an agreement on the next coronavirus relief bill. 

Instead, they are facing a quick pile up of potential obstacles to a deal as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offer “red lines” and competing priorities for the next piece of legislation. 

GOP senators are signaling that they don’t expect a quick agreement as they work to fine tune the implementation of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus package passed in late March.

“I don’t think we’re ready to talk about what the next step is going to be yet,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, told reporters.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, added that it was “too early to go down that line.” 

“It needs to be bipartisan, which is what we had last time with the CARES Act, 96-0 in the Senate,” he told PBS Newshour. 

But the political and policy gulfs between the chambers — and even members of the same party — are injecting a fresh round of partisanship into the coronavirus negotiations on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were able to pass four bills in the span of nearly two months with little opposition as the virus took a wrecking ball to the country’s economy. 

Pelosi and McConnell have each pressed their own priorities for the next phase of legislation, which would be the fifth coronavirus bill passed by Congress. 

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are warning that Republicans will not support another bill without increased liability protections for employers as they begin to reopen. 

The business community is pressuring the White House and Congress to help shield them from a wide range of lawsuits legal experts say they could face related to the coronavirus.

“Senate and House Republicans agree these protections will be absolutely essential to future discussions surrounding recovery legislation,” they said in a joint statement

Democrats have appeared lukewarm to the idea, warning that they will not support any language that would weaken protections for workers, who they worry could be pushed into unsafe working conditions if their employers feel they are protected from lawsuits. 

“If it’s going to help big CEOs, but not the workers, or hurt the workers, that’s not going to happen,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Pushed on the opposition from Democrats, McConnell doubled down, warning that another coronavirus relief package wouldn’t pass the Senate without the language. 

 “Let me make it perfectly clear, the Senate is not interested in passing a bill that does not have liability protection. … What I’m saying is we have a red line on liability. It won’t pass the Senate without it,” he added.

The back-and-forth comes as tensions are already running high in the Senate over McConnell’s decision to bring the chamber back in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic with Washington, D.C., under a stay at home order until at least May 15. 

McConnell has defended the decision, saying senators can do their work “safely.” The attending physician sent offices a six-page memo outlining guidelines for how to prevent the spread of the disease. But Democrats have fumed, warning him that he is risking the lives of his colleagues and Capitol staff even though nominations, and not business related to the coronavirus, are expected to dominate the agenda next week. 

Pressed by Stephen Colbert about his personal relationship with McConnell, Schumer demurred adding: “Look, I try to get along with everybody but he is not very talkative. Let’s put it like that.”

Republicans have been skeptical of a push by Democrats for more aid for state and local governments in the next bill.

Pelosi publicly predicted that state and local governments would need approximately $1 trillion, an estimate that was immediately brushed off by Cornyn, who characterized it as a “pretty outrageous number.”

Democrats are vowing to make it their top priority after Republicans were able to block any additional help from the last bill. The $2.2 trillion package signed into law in March included $150 billion for local governments, which governors said is not enough and included too many restrictions. 

“We’re looking at the states and municipalities and counties and the assistance that we would give them, we’re looking at what are your outlays for the coronavirus and what is your revenue lost because of the coronavirus,” Pelosi told reporters. 

Republicans are sharply divided over whether or not more flexibility should be provided to states for how they use the funding or even if Congress should rush to provide more help to states.

Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced legislation that would provide states with an additional $500 billion, including letting the funds go toward replacing revenue lost as a result of the coronavirus that shrunk state tax bases.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told Fox News that he thought a “number” of senators would be willing to provide greater flexibility but hit the brakes on agreeing to more beyond the $150 billion already passed by Congress. 

“Let’s not borrow another several hundred billion dollars and add to the dollars we’re already putting out there before we see what kind of impact they’ve had,” he said.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told South Dakota radio station SDPB that he pushed for at least a percent of the funding to states be able to go toward revenue replacement, but that he was “in the minority.” 

“I continue to have opposition on the part of a large number of individuals who fear that the states might very well use it for inappropriate activity,” he said. 

Democrats also want to get an expansion of food nutrition assistance and funding to help implement mail-in voting in the package, an effort that has sparked fierce GOP opposition.

And Republicans remain divided over a boost in unemployment benefits provided through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, as well as whether or not there should be another round of stimulus checks. The March legislation provided a one-time check of $1,200 to individuals who make up to $75,000 annually. 

The White House had initially pushed for two rounds of direct assistance but Republicans punted on including a second tranche, saying they wanted to wait to see if it was needed. 

White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters that another round was under “serious consideration,” but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he hoped it was not included in Congress’s next legislation. 

“The real stimulus that’s going to change the trajectory that we’re on is going to be the economy, not government checks,” Graham said during a virtual town hall. “So I doubt there will be another payment.”


Tags Bill Cassidy Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Coronavirus John Barrasso John Cornyn John Thune Kevin McCarthy Lindsey Graham Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paycheck Protection Program Stephen Colbert

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