After months of stalemate, there’s finally a flurry of congressional activity as the coronavirus crisis worsens. But with lawmakers proposing dueling measures and Hill leaders divided over the best path forward, a major relief package approved in December remains elusive.
A bipartisan congressional group struck a broad coronavirus compromise on Tuesday, a significant breakthrough after months of failed negotiations. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi restarted her talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin after they fell apart before the November election.
But congressional leaders remain on very different paths with just days to strike an agreement. Lawmakers may leave Washington at the end of next week until the new year, yet are feeling a renewed sense of urgency as the economy stumbles and the virus surges across the nation.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made a private offer to Republican leaders Monday night. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) revived his own targeted relief bill on Tuesday, even though it has yet to win Democratic support. McConnell said he’d spoken to the administration, the president would support it and it’s the best path forward with limited time to negotiate.
Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, pushed back on McConnell’s legislation and said their $908 billion bipartisan proposal stands a far better shot at becoming law during a GOP conference call on Tuesday afternoon. Murkowski said it was “offensive” to struggling Americans to concentrate on messaging bills, according to two people briefed on the call, and McConnell replied that his proposal is not a messaging bill.
“We just don’t have time to waste time. We have a couple weeks left here. Obviously it requires bipartisan support to get through Congress, but it requires a presidential signature,” McConnell told reporters afterward. “The place to start is: Are we making a law or are we just making a point?”
During the call, Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) touted their newly introduced bipartisan package. It marks the first significant movement since the election on dealing with skyrocketing caseloads, surging hospitalizations and a hobbled economy. And the legislation’s backers have been in touch with congressional leaders in both chambers of Congress and Mnuchin about their negotiations.
But the group’s members said they had not finalized the text of the legislation yet and conceded that they have no commitment for their proposal to hit the floors in either the House or Senate.
“We have not had assurances from them on that for a vote. But I think the American people will put the pressure” on congressional leaders, said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Moreover, Trump is not engaged in the negotiations after losing his reelection campaign to President-elect Joe Biden. And Biden has been generally aligned with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on going big. Biden told reporters on Tuesday that he would review the bipartisan bill but said anything passed in the lame duck will need to immediately be supplemented next year.
The bicameral, bipartisan compromise would provide $908 billion in aid and also shield businesses from coronavirus lawsuits for a few months to allow states to develop their own liability reforms. It falls between McConnell’s previous $500 billion proposal and Democratic legislation of about $2 trillion and includes $160 billion in state and local aid, $180 billion in additional unemployment insurance and $288 billion for small businesses. It also has $82 billion for schools as well as $45 billion for transportation, according to a draft, and it includes money for health care.
“It’s simply unacceptable for us to not respond in this circumstance,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
The bipartisan proposal was introduced on Tuesday morning by Manchin, Romney, Collins, Cassidy, Murkowski and Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), as well as House members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Separately, some other senators have held bipartisan discussions about a solution.
Robust funding for struggling state and local governments remains a Democratic demand. But Pelosi has talked recently of potentially distributing that funding through various outlets, including earmarking specific dollars for vaccines and schools for example, which would lower the outright demand for state and local funding, according to Democrats briefed on the discussions.
Pelosi did not tip her hand after her Tuesday afternoon call with Mnuchin, the duo’s first on Covid talks since Oct. 26. Mnuchin agreed to review the Pelosi-Schumer offer as well as the bipartisan Senate proposal, the California Democrat said in a tightly worded statement.
“Additional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame duck session,” Pelosi added.
While Mnuchin’s staff initiated the call, senior members of both parties are still pessimistic about the chances of a deal coming together in the next week before both chambers are scheduled to depart Washington. Mnuchin, too, downplayed the talks in a gaggle with reporters before his call with Pelosi, saying the “primary purpose” of the talks were to ensure the government remains funded beyond the Dec. 11 deadline.
Congressional leaders have had little interaction between themselves or the White House on coronavirus talks in more than a month. And McConnell did not seem inclined to put the bipartisan Manchin-Collins proposal up for a vote, instead preferring his GOP-centric approach.
McConnell and Pelosi had an end-of-the-year housekeeping call weeks ago where pandemic assistance briefly came up. Similarly, McConnell and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer talked on the phone about the new Congress in recent days and briefly touched on coronavirus relief. But it has been weeks since any of the key negotiators have engaged in real discussions.
McConnell’s bill includes liability reform, extends expiring unemployment benefits through the end of January, and includes money for schools, hospitals and small businesses. It does not include state and local aid, which turns off many conservatives. It’s likely to be a bit more expensive than the previous $500 billion proposal.
Despite the new plans from both parties, several congressional aides said the likeliest route to a new round of aid is through McConnell and Pelosi. Congress has not enacted a new significant round of aid since April.
Powered by WPeMatico