Senators fight over last-minute adds to coronavirus aid bill

Schumer says Democrats will speed up agreement once there’s a bipartisan deal

Reporters follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he makes his way to his office in the Capitol on Monday. Senators continue to fight over last-minute adds to a massive coronavirus aid bill.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Reporters follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he makes his way to his office in the Capitol on Monday. Senators continue to fight over last-minute adds to a massive coronavirus aid bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 23, 2020 at 11:39am, Updated at 4:15pm

The Senate once again couldn't clear a key procedural hurdle on a roughly $2 trillion economic aid package to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the vote was largely a formality anyway as furious negotiating continued behind the scenes.

"We're very close to reaching a deal, very close," Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor. "And our goal is to reach a deal today, and we're hopeful, even confident, that we will meet that goal."

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The cloture vote was rejected, 49-46. But Schumer earlier said the upcoming 1:30 p.m. votes were now "essentially irrelevant." He added that "we're prepared to speed up that agreement on the floor" once there's a bipartisan deal.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of seeking to pile on political favors for their constituencies, such as new collective bargaining powers for unions, extensions of wind and solar tax credits and fuel emissions caps for airlines. 

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"Eleventh-hour demands that Democrats have decided are more important than people's paychecks," McConnell said. "They ought to be embarrassed."

Democratic aides retorted that Republicans were seeking some last-minute additions of their own, such as a yearlong extension of a sexual abstinence education program and a prohibition on nonprofits that get Medicaid funding from receiving small-business loans under the bill.

Democrats were also holding out for higher food stamp benefits, in exchange for payments to farmers that Senate Republicans were seeking, including a $20 billion boost in Commodity Credit Corporation borrowing authority, according to aides who weren't authorized to speak on the record.

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"We're going to get this done today," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier Monday after leaving a meeting with Schumer. "We knocked off a bunch of the things on the list already, and we're closing in on issues."

Pelosi offers alternative

While Senate talks continued, Speaker Pelosi, D-Calif., was preparing to introduce her own $2.5 trillion version of a stimulus plan that was shaping up to be very different. It wasn't immediately clear if House Democrats were preparing to vote on that measure, or if they were holding it in reserve if Senate talks continue to drag.

While it wasn't the final iteration, a 1,119-page version that was current as of 9 p.m. Sunday as well as a summary of a more updated version fleshes out some of what Pelosi — and McConnell — were talking about.

The bill includes a section that would nullify several executive orders and presidential memorandums that Democrats say have undermined the ability of public sector unions to engage in collective bargaining. Democrats say the directives set an aggressive schedule for unions to bargain and limit the time unions have to perform official duties "by over 91 percent in some cases," the bill says.

It would create a new carbon offset regime for airlines, to try to get on a path to reduce jet fuel emissions by 50 percent by 2050. 

It would also expand paid family leave requirements in a bill President Donald Trump signed last week (PL 116-127) to all employers, not just those with 500 or fewer workers.

The package would create a form of "universal basic income," by distributing $2,000 per month per adult and $1,000 per child to individuals earning less than $115,000 and joint filers making up to $230,000 in 2020 for the duration of the coronavirus-related downturn. 

The earlier Pelosi draft would significantly expand the one-time rebate checks that Senate Republicans proposed, offering $1,500 for individuals and $3,000 for joint filers, with $1,500 per child, capped at three children. That's up from $1,200, $2,400 and $500 in the Senate GOP bill.

The same income thresholds would apply — $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for joint filer. But instead of receiving a reduced credit, higher earners could receive the full amount upfront in the Democratic version, while paying back the excess over three years.

In addition, the Democrats' bill would offer significant expansions of earned income tax credits for childless adults, and refundable child tax credits up to $2,000, with an extra $1,600 per child under age 6. That's similar but beefed up significantly from legislation (HR 3300) the House Ways and Means Committee approved last year.

Pensions, food stamps, state aid

The Pelosi package would also attempt to patch holes in the leaky multiemployer pension system, projected to be insolvent within five years. It would set up a Treasury lending program with generous terms, and little expectation of payback in some cases, similar to legislation the House approved last year.

It would also extend expiring "pension smoothing" rules that let companies space out contributions to their pension plans over a longer period.

The measure also reflects a 15 percent increase in food stamp benefit levels that Democrats have sought in negotiations. Under the proposal, maximum benefits would rise on May 1 to 115 percent of the June 2019 level of benefits.

There's an employer retention tax credit worth 80 percent of wages per quarter, capped at $10,000.

The package would also waive $10,000 in federal student loan payments. And it would push back by a year the looming deadline under the REAL ID Act for air travelers to obtain a special drivers' license in order to fly domestically.

The Democrats' bill also would appropriate large sums for federal agencies and states and local governments, including but not limited to:

  • Nearly $600 billion in small-business assistance, including $300 billion in forgivable loans and $100 billion in grants.
  • $200 billion for a "state stabilization fund," with a first tranche going out immediately and a second on July 1 or whenever certain unemployment rate thresholds are triggered.
  • $100 billion for grants to hospitals providers to reimburse them for lost revenues.
  • $100 billion to help low-income renters avoid eviction, and another $35 billion to state housing agencies to aid homeowners and renters.
  • $30 billion to help states pay for education expenses and another $9.5 billion for higher education.
  • $25 billion for public transit agencies and $10 billion for airports suffering from empty terminals.
  • $20 billion to reimburse the U.S. Postal Service for lost revenue, along with forgiveness of USPS debt.
  • $4 billion in election security grants.
  • $40 billion for payments to airlines to keep workers on payroll, plus an additional $21 billion for loans and loan guarantees, along with restrictions on airline ticket prices, baggage and other ancillary fees, stock buybacks and executive compensation.

'Bailout' fund

Democrats have cited a number of concerns with the package circulated Monday by Senate Republicans, including airline industry aid and a broader $500 billion loan fund to help "severely distressed sectors" they say lacks transparency and worker protections. Democrats also want substantially more assistance for the unemployed, states, hospitals and other health care providers.

Earlier Monday, Mnuchin told Fox News it was "ridiculous" that some are labeling the $500 billion Treasury fund "corporate welfare." 

"There are no bailouts. This is not about bailing anybody out," he said.

The lending fund as currently drafted would limit executive compensation and stock buybacks at firms that get loans, and the government would be entitled to an equity stake in companies that receive assistance.

But any contracts signed to repurchase shares up until the bill is signed into law would be allowed, and companies receiving financial aid could still lay off workers if it's not "practicable" to keep them on payroll. Democrats want more strings attached, including a guarantee that at least 90 percent of workers would retain their jobs, as well as more visibility into how Treasury distributes loans and who receives them.

Mnuchin said later he met with top Democrats on the Banking Committee, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Mark Warner of Virgina, to try to work out a deal on the industry lending piece.

Mnuchin did indicate that the airline aid piece of that package, which the GOP bill wrote in as $58 billion in loans and loan guarantees, might be changing. The industry wanted half of that sum in the form of what airline executives have dubbed "worker protection grants," and without that cash they say they'll be forced to start layoffs.

Industry unions like the Association of Flight Attendants have weighed in on behalf of cash grants instead of loans. "Without direct aid to airlines designated to cover payroll for aviation workers, nearly a million workers are facing furloughs and layoffs — cut off from healthcare in the middle of a pandemic," wrote Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants' union, in a weekend letter to senators.

Mnuchin indicated to Fox News that there might be some give on the airline aid language in the latest negotiations. "There is a special provision that we are in the process of negotiating for airlines," he said. "When the economy opens up, we need to be able to have these airlines, so there are very specific provisions to airlines, and those are still being negotiated as we speak."

Lindsey McPherson, David Lerman, Paul M. Krawzak and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.