Negotiators seem open to trade-offs for coronavirus relief deal

Liability protections, unemployment insurance, direct aid to households in play as deadlines loom

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., walks down the House steps after the last votes of the week on Feb. 28, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., walks down the House steps after the last votes of the week on Feb. 28, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 15, 2020 at 6:01pm

As Congress finds itself two weeks away from unemployment benefits expiring and the annual August recess in the balance, lawmakers are signaling openness to concessions on issues that could otherwise stand in the way of a bipartisan coronavirus relief deal.

The path to a deal on two of the thorniest issues is becoming increasingly clear: Democrats will have to give Republicans some business liability protections they're demanding, and in exchange the GOP will have to agree to stronger federal regulations to protect workers.

Republicans will have to agree to extend unemployment insurance provisions with some extra aid from the federal government. Democrats will likely agree to a number below the current $600 federal benefit in exchange for more generous direct payments to individuals and families.

Key negotiators like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have both offered hints in recent days that talks are headed in that direction, as they've laid out their demands while still leaving room for compromise.

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[Negotiators look for common ground on unemployment aid extension]

Pelosi, speaking at a news conference Wednesday to note that it's been two months since Democrats passed their $3.5 trillion relief package, said the House will not leave for its August recess without a deal. She said Republicans have moved closer to Democrats' position but acknowledged they're still far apart on the total amount of aid that's needed.

"They went from zero to now $1.3 [trillion]," Pelosi said. "That’s not enough. We need more. But we see the public evolution of their thinking."

Unemployment insurance

But Pelosi seemed ready to compromise on key areas like unemployment insurance. She emphasized the importance of those benefits, as well as direct payments, as a stimulus to the economy but declined to say she'd specifically push for continuing the full $600 federal unemployment benefit beyond July.

“We’ll see how it goes with the conversation about that, but some of it depends on what they’re willing to do on the direct payments as well,” Pelosi said.

The House's relief bill, which passed in May on a mostly party-line vote, would offer up to $6,000 in tax rebates per five-person household earning up to $150,000. That's more generous than the earlier round of payments that went out in March.

But McConnell has said additional direct payments should be targeted at lower-income households, floating a cutoff of $40,000 in recent press appearances. Pelosi has rejected that figure as too low.

[Senate GOP aid package may tailor payments to low-income households]

McConnell, meanwhile, has spent the recess week touring Kentucky health care facilities and talking about his work on a GOP alternative bill. He said Wednesday that it would be "probably next week" that he would lay out the details of his proposal for the next COVID-19 relief package.

The majority leader said he had spoken to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the lead negotiator for the Trump administration, on Wednesday during the drive to his Lexington-area event.

At a separate Monday event on the health care facility tour, McConnell said the GOP package would include "a continued emphasis on jobs, meaning unemployment insurance for those who are unable to get back to work or additional assistance to create more jobs." While he's been critical of the $600 federal benefit, McConnell has not ruled out a lower level of assistance.

Mnuchin has been open to extending the federal unemployment benefit but said he is working on a fix to ensure that future payouts won't exceed the income a person made while on the job. Republicans, and even some Democrats, have said unemployment benefits paying more than work has discouraged people from returning to jobs where they're able to do so.

"I think there's a legitimate concern that people are making more on unemployment with the $600 additional [than] they made in their employment and therefore are reluctant to go back," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said on MSNBC Monday, noting that lawmakers also need to consider aid for child care if they want to incentivize people to go back to work.

The Maryland Democrat said he supports Republicans' interest in addressing the unemployment overpayment matter but only if it's done in a way that doesn't delay relief.

"Surgical sounds good until you understand how long of a time it will take to target specifically and how much of an administrative cost will be added," Hoyer said.

Liability protections

McConnell in his appearances across the commonwealth this week has reiterated his demand that any aid package include limited liability protection for claims related to the coronavirus, with the exception of cases of gross negligence. He said the liability protections would cover businesses, workers, customers, hospitals, schools and more.

Pelosi has argued that the strongest way to protect workers, business and customers is to have a strong Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard for worker protections, which Republicans have rejected in negotiations over previous aid packages.

"It's a far better solution," she said.

But notably, Pelosi has not ruled out liability protections, indicating there could be some included as a trade-off if Republicans relent and agree to the OSHA protections.

Indeed, some rank-and-file lawmakers are calling on their leaders to cut that deal.

A group of 10 House Republicans, led by West Virginia Rep. David B. McKinley, sent a letter to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday urging him to agree to a "reasonable emergency temporary" OSHA standard while also agreeing they need to offer business protections against "frivolous lawsuits."

"Instituting reasonable OSHA standards could help achieve this goal. Simply put, if businesses abide by the OSHA standards they should be protected from baseless lawsuits," the Republicans wrote, echoing a point Pelosi has frequently made.

But the pressure for compromise is not coming just from Republicans. Several House Democrats signed on to a bipartisan letter, led by California Democratic Rep. Lou Correa, sent Tuesday to congressional leaders urging them "to implement targeted and limited-time COVID-19 liability protections" for health care providers and businesses that follow proper health guidelines.

"We want to ensure businesses are able to operate in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of their employees and customers," wrote the group of 12 House members, six from each party. "We have limited time and opportunities to achieve this goal."

Niels Lesniewski and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.