Senate Republicans are beginning to put together their own fifth COVID-19 aid package, but with no apparent Democratic involvement it’s unlikely to receive enough support to pass both chambers.
“What I can tell you without fear of contradiction is the focus will be kids, jobs and health care,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday after a closed-door lunch with GOP senators. “What I can tell you without fear of contradiction is that any bill that passes the Senate will have liability protections in it.”
One section of that package is already being drafted, according to Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt. The Missouri Republican told reporters that he’s directed the panel to begin working on legislation that would provide funding for more testing, additional work on therapeutics and vaccine research.
“A month from now we should be in the final stages of getting that bill together,” Blunt said.
But moving the bill through Congress, particularly before the August recess, is unlikely without the support of Democrats, who passed their own bill in the House last month and have urged McConnell to start bipartisan negotiations.
Blunt said his staff will be looking at how to ensure that schools throughout the country can get access to the large volume of tests they’ll need to allow students and teachers back into the classroom as early as August.
“The most important thing we do to resume normalcy is to get people back to school. You’re not going to do that, particularly in a residential setting, without millions of tests that people can take dozens of times,” he said. “That’s very practical, it’s very possible.”
Blunt’s panel is also planning to look at how the government can ensure that once a vaccine is approved it’s distributed “quickly and fairly in a way that people will think the whole country is adequately and appropriately served by it.”
McConnell has been reticent to begin working on a fifth coronavirus aid package for months, saying he wanted to see the course of the virus and its impact on the economy. In the two months since lawmakers agreed to the fourth package, cases have spiked in several states, leading some governors to reimpose stay-at-home orders and direct businesses to close their doors once again.
During that time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer have repeatedly called on McConnell to begin bipartisan negotiations on the next package.
House Democrats released their own bill in May, and the full chamber passed the $3.5 trillion measure that would provide nearly $1 trillion in additional aid to state and local governments and extend the added $600 unemployment insurance benefit through the end of January.
GOP lawmakers, so far, have been reluctant to support more funding to help state and local governments address budget shortfalls they are experiencing because of a drop-off in tax revenue from stay-at-home orders.
McConnell said Tuesday it’s unlikely Republicans will agree to extend the $600-plus in unemployment insurance benefits that lawmakers approved in a sweeping COVID-19 aid package in March, saying the additional money is making it harder to entice some people to go back to work. Without an extension, those additional funds will expire at the end of July.
“We need to make sure, for those who are not able to recover their jobs, unemployment is adequate. That is a different issue from whether we ought to pay people a bonus not to go back to work. So I think that was a mistake,” he said.
McConnell also reiterated his calls for liability protections, an issue that Democrats have been skeptical about.
“Unless you’re grossly negligent or intentionally engaged in misconduct, we’re going to see to it that you don’t get sued,” he said.
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.