Coronavirus relief talks stall as liability issue foils negotiators

Coronavirus relief talks stall as liability issue foils negotiators
© Greg Nash

Senators on Friday said efforts to reach a compromise on liability protection language have failed to make significant progress, putting a broader deal on a COVID-19 relief package in peril.

Senators familiar with the talks said that Democrats have rejected the latest Republican offer to create an 18-month federal shield on coronavirus litigation.

Republican lawmakers say their latest offer was a significant concession after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns MORE (R-Ky.) earlier this year called for a five-year period of liability protection for businesses, schools, health care providers and other organizations.

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“Durbin says that there’s no deal, it’s over,” said one Republican senator briefed on the talks, referring to Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress should butt out of Supreme Court's business Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (D-Ill.). 

A second GOP senator blamed the impasse on trial lawyers, saying: “We heard this morning that the trial lawyers said no.”

Moderate Democrats familiar with the talks on Friday acknowledged that reaching a deal on liability protection language is slipping away. 

“We have an eight-month impasse around liability issues and it’s proving extremely difficult to close it,” said Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Lack of transatlantic cooperation on trade threatens global climate change goals MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingGOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal White House cyber chief backs new federal bureau to track threats Manchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights MORE (I-Maine), who has been negotiating over liability protection with Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate MORE (R-S.C.) and other Republicans, said that McConnell is resisting proposals that deviate much from his initial demand for broad liability protections. 

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“He wants his proposal. We’re trying to find if there are any mutually acceptable alternatives but it’s very hard, very hard,” he said.

Durbin on Friday afternoon declined to comment on his discussions with Republicans.

“I’m not going to discuss it,” he said. “There should be an agreement. There have been proposals on both sides.”

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate MORE (S.D.) said the talks on liability protection have stalled and that negotiators are now discussing adding coronavirus-relief provisions to the year-end omnibus spending package.

He said a bipartisan group of moderates who are also working on a COVID relief package are exploring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) suggestion to leave the two most contention items, liability protection and funding for state and local governments, aside.

“Our guys have made, I think, a good faith effort to try and get this in the bipartisan group to satisfy the Democrats. I just don’t think it can satisfy the Democrats. So I think the idea of getting liability reform through is a long shot,” he said.

“I think there’s some discussion in the bipartisan group about getting rid of state and local and then putting stimulus checks in, in lieu of that. But like I said that’s kind of a different negotiation than what’s happening right now at the so-called Big Four level,” he added.

Thune said by “Big Four,” he was referring to the chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and leaders who are talking about putting pandemic relief items with broad support in the year-end omnibus package.

McConnell on Friday criticized Democrats’ opposition to liability protections, arguing that Democrats are “threatening to kill any compromise whatsoever unless Congress leaves small businesses, universities and health care workers as sitting ducks — sitting ducks for frivolous lawsuits.”

McConnell said that Congress has provided liability protections in previous national emergencies, and that small-business owners and university administrators have been key supporters of liability protections.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPoll: Majority of voters say more police are needed amid rise in crime America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (D-N.Y.) argued that a bipartisan group of negotiators were close to a deal on Thursday but that McConnell’s team told congressional leaders that the group would not be able to satisfy Senate Republicans on liability protections.

“It’s an unconscionable position: no relief for the American people unless corporations receive blanket immunity from lawsuits,” Schumer said.