Momentum stalls for COVID-19 relief bill

Momentum appeared to stall Wednesday on a COVID-19 relief bill amid differences not only between the parties, but between Senate Republicans and the White House over what should be included in the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democratic leaders of blocking progress, casting doubt on reaching a deal this week.

“At every turn they’ve delayed, deflected, moved the goalpost and made the huge number of places where Congress agrees into a hostage … for the few places where we do not agree,” he said on the Senate floor.

McConnell pointed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) swift rejection Tuesday evening of a new $916 billion proposal offered by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that would provide $160 billion in funding to state and local governments, a priority of Democrats, but also give businesses “robust” liability protections for businesses and schools, a priority of Republicans.

The fresh uncertainty over negotiations that appeared to be picking up momentum last week put a damper on the stock markets, which plunged into the red shortly after McConnell spoke Wednesday. 

A bipartisan group of moderates released more details of their $908 billion proposal, which has played a key role in the negotiations in recent days. However, they didn’t provide specifics about how they’d address state and local aid and liability protection. Instead, their document states that they have agreements in principle on these topics “as the basis for good faith negotiations.” 

The moderates had set themselves an informal deadline of Monday for reaching an agreement and releasing legislative text, but as of Wednesday afternoon the text had yet to emerge as lawmakers remained stymied on the contentious issue of giving liability protection to businesses and other organizations. 

A GOP aide said the inability of moderates to produce legislative text by Wednesday was a significant problem given the few legislative days remaining until Christmas Day. 

“We need that language Saturday,” the aide said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that the White House’s $916 billion plan was encouraging in that it showed that Republicans back the size of the moderates’ plan. But he also said that the White House proposal shouldn’t take the place of the bipartisan group’s discussions.

“The president’s proposal must not be allowed to supersede or obstruct the bipartisan congressional talks that are underway,” he said. “That is where the real action is, and where bipartisan agreement on the basic concepts will ultimately be forged.”

Schumer also noted that Democrats have reduced the size of their relief proposals over the past several months in order to reach a compromise with Republicans.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said GOP senators are significantly divided over the moderates’ proposal to provide $160 billion in new federal funding for state and local governments, which conservatives criticize as a “bailout” for blue states such as California and New York. 

“The most dilutive aspect of any of these proposals to our vote total in the Senate among Republicans is state and local [funding], there’s no question about it. That bleeds Republican,” Thune said. 

Senate Republican leaders aren’t saying whether the bipartisan $908 billion proposal will even get a vote on the Senate floor. 

Asked if the bipartisan proposal would get majority support from the Senate GOP conference, Thune said, “based on past members’ concerns and previous votes that having state and local funding in there would be highly problematic.”

“Having that in there would complicate the Republican vote total,” he added.  

A key test for the moderates is whether they can strike a deal on the wording of a provision to protect businesses, schools, universities, churches and other organizations from coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have taken over the talks on liability protection after negotiations between Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) failed to make progress over the weekend. 

King told reporters Wednesday that he’s close to an agreement with Graham, but the bigger challenge will be to win the support of the broader Senate Democratic Caucus. 

“We’re working on the bill language now,” he said, adding the goal was to get it finished by the end of the day.

A group of progressive senators, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), on Tuesday slammed the bipartisan proposal for including a six-month moratorium on COVID-related lawsuits, declaring it would give a “get-out-of-jail free card to companies that put the lives of their workers and customers at risk.”

McConnell on Tuesday suggested that Congress pass a relief package that does not include either state and local aid or liability protection, but faced pushback from Democratic leadership. 

The GOP leader last week appeared to shoot down the moderates’ $908 billion proposal when asked about it at a press conference. 

“We just don’t have time to waste time,” he told reporters when asked about the plan. 

It appeared last month that McConnell was going to take the lead in negotiating with Democrats the size and scope of any coronavirus relief package passed before the Christmas recess.

Then the White House weighed in unexpectedly Tuesday afternoon with Mnuchin’s $916 billion proposal. It includes stimulus checks, a priority of some lawmakers on the left and the right that was not a part of the bipartisan proposal. 

Mnuchin’s plan also provides limited funding for unemployment insurance — $40 billion — drawing a swift rebuke from Pelosi and Schumer, who called it “unacceptable.”

Progressives who are pushing for direct payments said they found the White House’s proposal insufficient. They are pushing for payments of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child — the same amount as the one-time payments provided in the CARES Act enacted in March — while Mnuchin proposed payments of $600 per adult and per child.

“The proposal that came out of the White House just yesterday talks not about $1,200 per person but $600. That’s unacceptable,” Sanders said on MSNBC Wednesday. “And by the way, they want to do away with all extended unemployment benefits, and that is also unacceptable.” 

Analysts have roughly estimated that direct payments of $600 would cost about $170 billion. That’s about half the cost of the first round of payments and is an amount similar in size to the amount of funding proposed for state and local governments in both the White House and the moderates’ proposals.

Tags Angus King Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Coronavirus relief bill COVID-19 Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi ppp Steven Mnuchin stimulus checks Unemployment

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