Mnuchin says GOP has ‘fundamental’ deal on $1T coronavirus relief package
The White House and Senate Republicans on Thursday reached a “fundamental agreement” on a coronavirus package, according to a top negotiator.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — said staff were now trying to finalize text of the agreement, which is expected to be released as a group of bills instead of one piece of legislation.
“We just had a very productive discussion with the leader. We do have a fundamental agreement between the White House and the Republicans in the Senate,” Mnuchin told reporters.
Asked what the outstanding sticking points were, Mnuchin pointed to needing to finalize and sign off on text.
“This is obviously is complicated stuff. The teams worked late into last night. We’re going to go back and review language this morning, whether it gets introduced today or not, we’re still looking at the timing. But again, we have a fundamental agreement, we’re just now going through language,” Mnuchin said.
The top line of the bill, according to Meadows, will still be around $1 trillion, a cap that both McConnell and the White House had sought to impose on the opening Republican offer amid angst within their caucus about the impact the roughly $3 trillion already appropriated by Congress could have on the country’s debt.
“We’ve made very good progress with our Republican colleagues. … If you look at a very comprehensive bill where you’re spending $1 trillion, there’s a number of legislative initiatives that we’ve got to go through, line by line,” Meadows told reporters.
Negotiators are running up against a tight timeframe. Beefed up unemployment benefits are expected to expire next week and lawmakers need to get a deal before they leave for the August break. The Senate is scheduled to leave on August 7, leaving them roughly two weeks to get an agreement.
Meadows and Mnuchin stressed that they want an overall agreement in that timeframe, but, if they can’t get that, they floated moving the unemployment piece and funding for schools separately, arguing that those two sections face a more urgent timeline.
“Unemployment insurance ends the end of next week. We’re going to be ready to make sure that those unemployed Americans still have assistance. I don’t imagine that our Democrats across the aisle would want to stand in the way of helping those unemployed Americans receive benefits,” Meadows told reporters. “Those deadlines … on Capitol Hill always work magic.”
The forthcoming GOP proposal will include a second round of stimulus checks for individuals who make up to $75,000 per year.
It’s also expected to end a $600 per week boost to federal unemployment benefits and instead replace it with a roughly 70 percent match of a worker’s wages before they were laid off. The 70 percent match would last through the end of the year under the Republican bill.
Negotiators had wanted to tie the unemployment benefit to wages during the March negotiations but were warned by the Labor Department that state unemployment offices were not set up to handle that. Even with the flat fee agreed upon in March some faced a delay in getting the enhanced unemployment benefit.
Mnuchin said that they had been working on a technical fix to allow for the unemployment benefits to be tied to an individual’s wage but provided a caveat that they were also working on a “backup plan.”
When the text of the agreement will be released is unclear, according to both the White House negotiators and GOP senators involved in the talks.
They had hoped to release the bills on Thursday, but indicated that could slide to Monday as they finalize the text and both sides sign off on final language.
“We’ve reached an agreement, we think. The White House is reviewing some of the text we agreed to last night,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters on Thursday.
Shelby is part of a group of GOP senators who announced a deal on Wednesday night on the appropriations portions of the coronavirus package, including $105 billion for schools and $16 billion in new testing money. Asked on Thursday if text of that would be released this week, he hedged.
“Could be late today, could be Monday, but we’re making progress,” Shelby said.
The GOP proposal is also expected to include a second round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, a five-year shield from coronavirus lawsuits except in the case of gross negligence or intentional misconduct and help for businesses to pay for protective equipment and other coronavirus-related expenses.
It will not include one of President Trump’s top priorities, a payroll tax cut.
Republicans have spent days negotiating amongst themselves to get an agreement, which is expected to be their opening offer for talks with Democrats.
Several Democratic senators immediately poured cold water on parts of the forthcoming GOP bill, underscoring the difficulty awaiting negotiators as they try to get a deal in a few short weeks.
“You can’t just say five lines and let’s sit down and negotiate. The devil is all in the details,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also cast doubt on the ability of the Labor Department to tie the unemployment benefits to previous wages, noting that they had told senators during the March negotiations that state systems were too outdated to accomplish that.
“Secretary [Eugene] Scalia said, ‘Can’t be done. Impossible. Bronze Age technology,’ and then he folded his arms and basically said no to almost everything,” Wyden said. “Everything they have talked about so far based on Secretary Scalia’s comments can’t be administered.”
Updated at 12:27 p.m.