Senate to vote on scaled-down coronavirus relief package

Bonnie Cash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that he will force a vote on a GOP coronavirus relief package after weeks of closed-door talks between Republican senators and the White House. 

“Today, the Senate Republican majority is introducing a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues. … I will be moving immediately today to set up a floor vote as soon as this week,” McConnell said in a statement.

The Republican bill is expected to include a federal unemployment benefit, another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, and more money for coronavirus testing and schools, as well as liability protections from lawsuits related to the virus. McConnell didn’t release a price tag for the forthcoming bill, but it is expected to be at least $500 billion — half of the $1 trillion package Republicans previously unveiled in late July. 

The Senate returns from its August recess on Tuesday, and an initial procedural vote could be set as soon as Thursday. But the bill isn’t expected to have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to the Democratic caucus late last week that a “skinny” bill would fall short of the sweeping legislation they believe is needed to confront the health and economic fallout from the virus, which has killed nearly 190,000 Americans. 

“Republicans may call their proposal ‘skinny,’ but it would be more appropriate to call it ’emaciated.’ Their proposal appears to be completely inadequate and, by every measure, fails to meet the needs of the American people,” Schumer wrote.

The forthcoming GOP bill doesn’t include Democratic priorities like more money for state and local governments that has been a perennial sticking point in the talks with the White House and congressional Democratic leaders. It also doesn’t include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks that had been included both in the March deal and a GOP package unveiled in late July.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer added in a joint statement on Tuesday that Senate Republicans “appear dead-set on another bill which doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere.” 

“If anyone doubts McConnell’s true intent is anything but political, just look at the bill. This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support,” they added. 

And because it can’t break a filibuster, and bipartisan talks have been stalled for weeks, it will largely be a messaging exercise. But by forcing a vote, McConnell is giving vulnerable GOP incumbents something to tout back in their home states during the final weeks of the campaign, as well as likely fodder against Democratic senators.

“Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation. … I will make sure every Senate Democrat who has said they’d like to reach an agreement gets the opportunity to walk the walk,” McConnell added in his statement on Tuesday.

Republicans have been negotiating daily with the White House over the pared down coronavirus package, with talks going through the weekend.

McConnell previously predicted that up to 20 of his 53-member caucus wouldn’t vote for any additional relief, underscoring the GOP divisions as they tried to negotiate a fifth relief package.

But GOP leaders want 51 votes for the forthcoming bill, which would let them show their unity, but don’t appear to have that locked down yet as they try to resolve final sticking points. 

Republicans, for example, have been haggling over language related to school choice that has emerged as a sticking point for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). And Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wants to include a tax credit for home school-related expenses. 

But Republicans have been eager to vote on a bill as the talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have gone nowhere. 

The sticking points on the negotiations are largely the same as they were when Congress left D.C.: Republicans have proposed a $1.1 trillion package, while Democrats have lined up behind the $3.4 trillion House-passed bill.

Republicans rejected an offer from Pelosi and Schumer that Democrats would reduce their price tag by $1 trillion if Republicans would increase their offer by the same amount. 

They also have deep disagreements on major policy points including help for state and local governments, unemployment insurance and McConnell’s red line of liability protections.

“Well, I think, you know, in my discussions with the speaker, where we’re really stuck is both on certain policy issues but more about more importantly on the top line. The speaker has refused to sit down and negotiate unless we agree to something like a two and a half trillion dollar deal in advance,” Mnuchin said during the interview with Fox News on Sunday.

Updated at 10:30 a.m.

Tags Charles Schumer coronavirus legislation coronavirus negotiations Coronavirus relief bill Josh Hawley Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steven Mnuchin Ted Cruz
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