Clash looms over next coronavirus relief bill

Congressional leaders say there will be a fifth coronavirus relief bill approved by Congress, but how lawmakers get to the finish line is anyone’s guess.

Huge policy differences separate Democrats in the House from Republicans in the Senate, and lawmakers have just weeks once they return to Washington to complete a bill before they are scheduled to leave again.

Both parties have reasons to get to a deal given the intense pressure on Washington to provide relief for businesses and households amid double-digit unemployment and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Yet the divide on the costs and the content of a bill are real, as are the political pressures from a presidential election that is now less than four months away.

“I think we’re so far apart on the dollar amounts, who knows what might happen. … My personal feeling is that seems like a big gap to bridge” in that time frame, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged getting a fifth relief bill to President Trump’s desk is going to be difficult after the first four measures each passed the Senate unanimously or with little opposition, but voiced confidence that Congress will be able to do it.

“I can’t comfortably predict that we’re going to come together and pass it unanimously like we did a few months ago … the atmosphere has become a good deal more political than it was in March. But I think we will do something,” McConnell said in Kentucky.

Lawmakers say there is a broad consensus that Congress should pass the relief bill before leaving Washington until September, when the bulk of their focus will turn to funding the government and preventing a shutdown.

“There’s a lot of work that’s been done. … A lot of ideas that are being batted around,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.), asked about the plausibility of getting a bill done before the break. “I think it’s realistic. It will be challenging for sure, but in the end if we need to move … we will.”

Helping drive the rush to another bill are a host of looming deadlines. The application window for the Paycheck Protection Program will close in early August, the boosted unemployment benefits expire at the end of July and eviction moratoriums also are set to be lifted.

“I believe there’s a majority in the Republican conference and a majority in the Senate that believes we need to have a fourth package before we leave here in August,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.

At the same time, he said he wasn’t sure how the 60 votes necessary to cobble together a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate would come together.

House Democrats passed their initial offer for a fifth bill in May. That proposal totaled nearly $3 trillion, including roughly $1 trillion in additional aid for state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks and expanded nutrition assistance.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed a question about if there would be enough time to negotiate a package, telling reporters: “Of course.”

“I’m not leaving for two weeks. … They’ve made their overtures; they also have said publicly that this or that should be in the next bill. So, we anticipate we will have a bill,” she said during a press conference.

But the White House and congressional Republicans have floated a substantially smaller price tag.

Marc Short, an aide to Vice President Pence, told Bloomberg Radio on Tuesday that they wanted a bill that costs roughly $1 trillion or less.

“There’s obviously been a lot of stimulus put in the system over the last couple bills, and so the price tag for us would be that,” he said. 

McConnell is expected to unveil a Republican proposal in a few weeks, after which he’ll start negotiating with Democrats. The $2.2 trillion package from March was put together in a similar fashion, with administration officials conducting shuttle diplomacy between the Senate GOP leader, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi.

But in addition to divisions with Democrats, Republicans first need to get themselves on the same page on key issues like more help for state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks and what to do about unemployment insurance, after Congress included an additional $600 per week in the March bill.

A core group of bipartisan negotiators are also talking about the next phase of the Paycheck Protection Program, including mulling tighter restrictions for qualifying. Blunt is having his staff draft language on the health care component, including additional funds for testing. And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is holding calls with Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee over the two-week break.

“There’s going to be consultation in the next two weeks among my staff and the staff of my members and them,” Grassley said late last week. “I have made no decisions. … I guess you’d have to assume everything is on the table.”

McConnell also tipped his hand this week on what would likely be in his proposal, including a five-year shield from coronavirus-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and hospitals unless they engaged in gross negligence. Republicans are also focused on trying to get schools reopened for the fall, and he said that another round of stimulus checks, potentially with a lower income ceiling, “could well be” in the next bill.

“I’ll be unveiling something, which will be a starting place, in a few weeks,” McConnell said. “And we’ll then be dealing with the administration and the Democrats and all the rest.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Coronavirus Donald Trump John Thune Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt
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