Congress warms to possible Covid stimulus deal
A bipartisan group of senators finally hit paydirt in its long-running coronavirus relief negotiations. And it may provide a pathway to a deal that has eluded Congress for months.
Roughly a dozen centrist senators presented their much-anticipated product on Monday afternoon in two pieces: A $748 billion package boosting education, vaccine, transportation and other funding, and a more controversial $160 billion add-on of state and local funding married with a short-term liability shield for employers.
And though it’s still not clear what exactly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will do with it, the $748 billion piece was fairly warmly received by Republicans on Monday and Democrats did not immediately dismiss it.
“It’s getting close. It includes a lot of things in our package and number-wise it’s less than what it was last week,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune. “It’s trending in the right direction.”
“Words matter and I want to see what’s in it,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democratic leader.
She, like other Democrats, is still pushing for the money for states and cities and wants to see precisely how vaccine dollars are spent in the legislation, among other provisions. Notably, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin appeared at a press conference announcing the legislation, suggesting some buy-in from leadership.
“Weeks have passed, hours and hours of Zoom calls and we’ve reached this point. It feels good, it feels like legislating, it feels like why we were elected,” Durbin said.
McConnell has already called for dropping the liability shield and local spending — the two most contentious issues — which suggests the first piece offers Congress a framework for finishing out the lame duck with a stimulus success after months of deadlock. The second part is more controversial even among moderate negotiators: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has signed off on it but other Democrats are more reluctant, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Congressional leaders are also holding their own coronavirus talks and will need to see the legislative text of the group’s work before weighing in publicly. Congress has not approved a new significant round of aid since April, and in recent weeks the pandemic has spiked across the U.S., further hobbling the economy.
Leaders of the group said it’s now up to McConnell and Pelosi to decide what can pass both chambers of Congress as lawmakers scramble to wrap up the legislative session by Friday.
“What we’ve been able to do is to give to leadership, as they’re moving through in these final days, a ready-made, negotiated product,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “You’ve got your gift, take it.”
But the group’s presentation gets at the heart of the difficulties congressional leaders face in the coming days. Even the bipartisan coalition, in the end, could not find a way to marry the more controversial local funding and liability discussions with a broader relief deal, leaving it up to party leaders who have been in a stalemate over those issues.
“The best way to do that at this late date is to negotiate a four-corners agreement,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, referring to top congressional leaders. “My understanding is they are looking at what the bipartisan group has come up with and a lot of it is good stuff, for potential inclusion in the year-end spending bill.”
Cornyn called the bipartisan proposal a “positive influence” on the ultimate deal, adding he’d be “shocked” if congressional leaders didn’t release text of a final deal by Wednesday. McConnell and Pelosi have both said they want to attach a stimulus deal to the $1.4 trillion omnibus measure Congress that has to pass by Friday in order to keep the government open.
“We’ve got to vote on this thing by Friday and get out of here,” Cornyn said.
McConnell has not commented directly on the bipartisan proposal, though it does meet his general framework after he relented on previous demands for liability reform in any new stimulus measure. He did tout some provisions included in the compromise, including small business funding and money for vaccine distributions.
“I can speak for the Republican side. We want to make a law to agree where we can and help people who need,” McConnell said on Monday afternoon.
Democrats want the state and local funding though some have signaled they might be able to wait until next year, while conservative senators are mostly opposed to a new round of state aid.
Some lawmakers are still hoping to be able to roll all of the provisions, including the local funding and liability shield, into one bill. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), co-chairs of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, planned to work into Monday night to marry the two proposals released earlier in the day. The group hopes to unveil one $908 billion package in the House on Tuesday.
The $748 billion bipartisan Senate proposal includes an extension of current unemployment assistance for 16 weeks, with $300 in additional weekly unemployment benefits, $300 billion in small business relief, and $16 billion for coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution. The bipartisan bill also provides billions of dollars more in funding for emergency food assistance, education funding and relief for airlines, Amtrak and public transit.
The bipartisan group includes Manchin, Murkowski, Durbin and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). They all support the $748 billion deal, but Democrats generally oppose the liability shield the GOP wants to marry with state and local aid.
Separately, Pelosi has continued to stay in touch with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about Covid relief negotiations, although the two tried for months to reach a broader deal on their own, to no avail. Mnuchin and Pelosi talked Sunday afternoon and again on Monday, according to her office. Pelosi last week publicly rejected an offer from the White House that would have included another round of stimulus checks but with less unemployment assistance, saying she’d prefer to focus on the bipartisan Senate proposal.
Pelosi wouldn’t say Monday whether she’s open to dropping Democrats’ demands for additional state and local funding. “I very much support state and local,” Pelosi said. “We are in negotiations,” she added when asked by reporters if it was still a “red line” for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed her position and said he needed to see the legislative text of the centrist bill.
“Democrats remain committed to getting another round of emergency relief to the American people before the end of the year and in a robust, bold way because America needs it so badly,” Schumer said on Monday afternoon.
And there’s another issue: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are demanding any legislation include direct checks to individuals, which would balloon the price tag. The bipartisan group’s legislation does not include a new round of checks, according to sources close to the talks.
In an interview, Sanders urged Pelosi and Schumer to reject the bipartisan bill and said Congress won’t go home for the holidays without approving new checks. And he said it would be a raw deal for Democrats to settle for the bipartisan group’s bill, which marries unused money from previous relief with around $200 billion in new spending.
“What kind of negotiation is it when you go from $3.4 trillion to $188 billion in new money? That is not a negotiation. That is a collapse,” Sanders said. “We cannot go home until there is strong unemployment benefits plus $1,200 per adult, $500 per kid for every working person and family in this country.”
Sanders and Hawley’s position could force a deadline crunch later this week. The government is set to shut down on Friday without action and congressional leaders are hoping to attach a stimulus package to the government funding bill. The closer Congress creeps toward the shutdown deadline, the more leverage individual senators have.