Senate

Pressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal

Pressure is building on Capitol Hill for Congress to pass a fifth coronavirus relief bill, even as there's no clear path, yet, to an agreement.

With time running out before lawmakers leave until January, several factions in both the House and Senate are circulating offers that they hope will break the months-long stalemate between Senate Republicans, Democratic leadership and the White House.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he hopes Congress would be able to get more money passed this month but acknowledged what a final agreement would look like is up in the air.

"I'm hoping that will come together," he said. "I'm not sure yet where this ends or what ends up being voted."

The limbo status for billions of dollars in relief comes as coronavirus cases are climbing across the country, many states and cities are reimposing restrictions and a slew of aid programs are set to run dry in a matter of weeks. Public health experts have also warned of a brutal winter, even amid hopes that a vaccine could start to be distributed this month.

In the latest sign of frustration over leadership's inability to work out a deal, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers introduced a $908 billion framework in an effort to jump-start the chances of an agreement this year.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said it would be "inexcusable" for Congress to leave town for the year without providing more coronavirus relief with a slew of assistance programs set to expire within weeks.

"This is a COVID emergency relief framework," Manchin said. "It's not the time for political brinkmanship. ... This is going to get us through the most difficult times."

That bill, according to a copy of the framework, would provide another $160 billion for states and cities - a top priority for Democrats - $180 billion for unemployment insurance and $288 billion for more small-business assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

The unemployment benefits would break down to $300 a week for 18 weeks, retroactive to Dec. 1. That's half of the $600 per week included under the CARES Act from late March.

It also includes billions in assistance for transportation-related industries like airlines, $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution and more money for things like schools, child care and the Postal Service.

The funds, according to senators, would run through the first quarter of 2021 in an effort to provide states and businesses a bridge to get through winter. Though the stock market has hit record highs, the spread of the coronavirus has devastated small businesses and killed more than 268,000 people in the U.S., according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

"It's been said, this is not what everybody would wish. People are going to look at these buckets and they're going to say 'Well, my bucket isn't there' or 'My bucket is only half full.' Well, this is ... emergency relief. This is designed to get us through this next quarter," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

But the framework is just that - an outline of a potential agreement. And aides said there were still sticking points including how to address liability protections. The issue is a red line for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and draws opposition from Democrats, who worry that it will undermine worker safety.

In a hat tip to McConnell, the proposal would provide short-term federal protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits until states could come up with their own protections.

Lawmakers said they kept McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the loop on the negotiations, which have taken place daily for weeks. And they consulted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on areas like aid for hard-hit industries.

Thune referred to the work done by the bipartisan group as "helpful," because it underscored, for the most part, where lawmakers are in agreement on coronavirus relief.

But the bill immediately faced pushback from GOP senators, who took issue with various parts of it.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) panned the measure because it includes another $160 billion in help for state and local governments, a top priority for Democrats.

"I'm very disappointed that a proposal from some of my colleagues today apparently includes provisions that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out wasteful states when we don't even know how much is still unspent from the previous coronavirus response packages that Congress passed earlier this year," Scott said.

Thune noted that Republicans also spoke out against the state and local funding during a GOP conference call on Tuesday, which was held in lieu of the normal in-person caucus lunch.

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pointed to the PPP language as inadequate.

"It is important to note that at its current level, the proposal barely provides enough to fund a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans and does not provide sufficient funds to help small businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues and others to help them weather the second wave," he added.

In a sign of the roadblocks facing the bipartisan group, McConnell and the White House were both noncommittal on Tuesday about the fate of the proposal.

The GOP leader instead is circulating among Republicans his own proposal, which members of GOP leadership described as mirroring the substance of a roughly $500 billion bill that has been twice blocked by Democrats.

McConnell's proposal, according to a copy of the outline obtained by The Hill, would provide protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits, extend unemployment insurance for roughly a month and provide another round of PPP funding. It would also provide more money for things including the Postal Service, schools, testing and vaccine distribution.

McConnell said that he crafted his proposal after talking with Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and characterized it as something that could get President Trump's support.

"I think we have a sense of what that is. ... We're going to send that out to all the offices and get some feedback to see how our members react," McConnell said.

Asked about the bipartisan group's work, he added: "We just don't have time to waste time."

But the GOP proposal is unlikely to win over Democrats. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a proposal to McConnell this week, but the Senate Democratic leader declined to offer details.

"I just heard Leader McConnell say he's going to put another partisan proposal on the floor," Schumer said. "The obvious fact of the matter is the biggest impediment to getting an agreement is the Republican leader refusing to negotiate in a bipartisan way."

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