GOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief

Congress and the White House are gearing up for battle over the fifth round of coronavirus aid.

The administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.) will start briefing Republicans on the forthcoming GOP proposal on Tuesday, as Congress faces intense pressure to act: States across the country are seeing cases spike, unemployment rates are in the double digits and some hospitals are running low on bed space and protective equipment.

But the political stakes are also high, with both sides jockeying for leverage ahead of the start of formal negotiations on the bill, which is expected to be one of the last that clears Congress before the November election.

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Those tensions played out on the Senate floor, as both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump backs plan to give airlines another billion in aid MORE (D-N.Y.) put the onus on the other for coming to the negotiating table. 

The two sides will have a matter of weeks to put together a fifth relief package before Congress is expected to leave town again. The administration wants a deal by the end of the month, but the Senate is scheduled to be in Washington through Aug. 7, giving negotiators a little more flexibility.

It’s a tight time frame for Congress, especially with an election less than four months away. Complicating negotiations further are the numerous differences between stakeholders, not just the ones dividing Republicans and Democrats but those tripping up GOP lawmakers with the White House. 

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE will attend the closed-door GOP lunch on Tuesday to brief Republican senators on the contours of the agreement. McConnell is also expected to start to “socialize” the bill with Republicans on Tuesday, the first time the caucus will gather since early July.

Administration officials are likely to face pushback from Republicans if they include a second round of stimulus checks, though the GOP bill is likely to lower the income cap on who can qualify.

The forthcoming GOP proposal is also likely to include a payroll-tax cut, a top priority for Trump, according to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyJudge throws out House GOP lawsuit over proxy voting Republicans fear disaster in November Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker MORE (R-Calif.) and Mnuchin, despite pushback from Republicans and Democrats. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again MORE (R-Iowa) told reporters on Monday that a payroll-tax cut could be a “public relations problem.”

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And the White House and congressional Republicans remained at odds Monday about including more money for testing — something top GOP senators view as vital but the administration has expressed opposition to.

Asked about Republicans wanting more testing, Meadows asked reporters “how would they even know what funding for testing is.”

Republicans are also divided on whether the roughly $70 billion in education funding should be tied to schools reopening. Trump had previously threatened to cut off funds for schools that do not resume in-person classes, but Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections MORE (R-Mo.), who has been part of the group drafting the education language, had indicated that he thought schools would need some federal assistance even if they hold virtual classes. 

In addition to briefing Republicans, Mnuchin and Meadows will sit down with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE (D-Calif.) and Schumer on Tuesday, two sources said. The talk will mark the first time the four have sat down to discuss the fifth coronavirus bill.

Portions of the GOP bill taking shape already have sparked backlash from Democrats.

Republicans are expected to propose a five-year shield from lawsuits related to coronavirus exposure unless an entity — such as a business, school or hospital — engaged in “gross negligence” or “intentional misconduct.” Lawsuits would also have to be filed in federal, not state, court.

Democrats, however, have characterized the language as a shield for corporations.

Beyond liability protections, the two parties are set to clash over additional help for state and local governments. The Democratic bill in May provided roughly $1 trillion in additional assistance; the Republican bill is not expected to include more money but instead provide more flexibility.

Pelosi has indicated that Republicans are resistant to other Democratic priorities like worker protections and an increase in food assistance. And the two sides remain deeply divided over what to do about unemployment insurance.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved in March included a $600 per-week increase to weekly unemployment insurance. Republicans have argued that while this can be extended, the amount paid should be reduced to no more than 100 percent of what a worker was making before they were laid off. The problem, according to senators, is that they were told in March by the Labor Department that state unemployment systems could not handle such a requirement.

The two sides also remain far apart on how much they should spend on the next bill. McConnell and the White House view $1 trillion as the rough starting point, while House Democrats passed an approximately $3 trillion bill in late May.

Schumer appeared to warn in a letter that Democrats were prepared to block the GOP proposal if McConnell tries to move a bill without a bipartisan deal. Legislation needs 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate.

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“During the debate over the CARES Act, it was our unity against a partisan, Republican first draft that allowed for significant improvements to be made — improvements that have benefited millions upon millions of Americans. I hope we will not have to repeat that process. But we will stand together again if we must,” Schumer wrote in the letter.

Democrats believe they have leverage to move Republicans toward their preferred spending level. In addition to the growing number of cases in the United States, Trump has been slammed by a recent slew of negative polls including roughly two-thirds of Americans not trusting him on the coronavirus. Those numbers, if they don’t change, could spell trouble for Republicans, who are trying to retain the Senate majority in November.

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthGOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief House seeks ways to honor John Lewis Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push MORE (D-Ky.) argued that because of the country’s worsening grip on the spread of the coronavirus, Democrats will enter the talks with leverage over McConnell.

“We’ve got an easier case to make for $3 trillion than they do for $1 trillion,” he said. “Over the last two months, it’s gotten a lot worse than we thought it would.”

Mike Lillis contributed.