Capitol Insiders Survey: Parties are poles apart on virus relief

Democratic and Republican staffers largely reflect views of their bosses

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talk before an Inaugural Ceremonies Committee meeting on June 30. Despite key disagreements, both sides, including staffers, at least agree that further virus relief is needed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talk before an Inaugural Ceremonies Committee meeting on June 30. Despite key disagreements, both sides, including staffers, at least agree that further virus relief is needed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 20, 2020 at 7:00am

It will take compromise for lawmakers to coalesce around another coronavirus relief bill.

If congressional aides reflect the views of their bosses, the two parties enter those discussions from opposite poles, seeing eye to eye on none of several major issues they’ll have to resolve in order to pass a new law.

Still, the imperative is there, and perhaps even the contours of a deal.

On July 31, key provisions of the March aid bill know as the CARES Act are set to expire. The law is Congress’ principle enacted response to the virus, including pandemic unemployment payments of $600 per week and a moratorium on evictions from public housing and rental properties with federally backed mortgages.

With nearly 18 million Americans still out of work, and millions of others earning less than they did before virus-sparked lockdowns sent the economy into recession, both Republicans and Democrats at least agree that further government aid is needed.

CQ Roll Call emailed its Capitol Insiders Survey to congressional aides on July 7. They had until July 14 to fill it out, and 126 did: 75 Democrats and 51 Republicans.

Asked their opinions on six provisions under consideration for a new virus relief bill, the Democratic and Republican aides did not back any of the same ones. Still, there’s tremendous pressure on both parties to extend aid, and the survey results suggest an inclination to compromise. On none of the provisions did one party express blanket opposition.

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Democrats supported extending $600 weekly unemployment plus-ups and the eviction moratorium. And they backed more aid to states hard hit by declining sales tax revenue as well as another round of checks for middle- and lower-income Americans.

House Democrats included all those things in the $3 trillion relief measure they passed in May. Speaking to reporters on July 15, Speaker Nancy Pelosi again called on the Senate to pass that bill.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called it an “unserious” Democratic “wish list” that is too expensive. On July 13, the Kentucky Republican tweeted, “Any future COVID relief package needs to be measured, with a focus on getting kids back in school safely, workers back on the job, and delivering liability protections for individuals related to the coronavirus crisis.”

Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman in May proposed replacing the $600 unemployment boost with a $450 weekly payment for workers who find jobs.

At that time, states were universally moving to lift lockdown orders, gradually allowing more businesses to reopen after most states ordered broad swaths of industry to shut down in March to combat the virus. And two in three Republican respondents to CQ Roll Call’s poll backed Portman’s idea. Only 44 percent of the Democrats did, but that was a plurality, with 19 percent opposed and 37 percent unsure.

But the diverging experiences of the states in combating the virus more recently complicate the picture. After historic layoffs in March and April, when more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs, employment levels improved in May and June, when employers hired back more than 7 million people.

In recent days, some states, most prominently California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, have backtracked in their reopenings, though. They’ve closed bars and some other businesses, and are considering broader shutdowns amidst rising numbers of infections, threatening the positive employment trajectory.

The compromise, then, may be some form of bonus for returning workers, with continued protections for those out of work, albeit not as generous as $600 a week.

Still, Pelosi, speaking to reporters on July 16, expressed skepticism about the back-to-work bonus, absent a national workplace safety standard. “People do not want to risk their lives and that of their families by going to work that isn’t safe,” she said.

Since April, McConnell has said that any new virus relief bill must include liability protections for reopening businesses, schools and medical providers, so long as they take precautions to protect workers, customers, patients and students from the virus, calling it a “red line.” And nearly every GOP aide who filled out CQ Roll Call’s poll backed a lawsuit shield.

Nearly a third of Democratic aides said they’d include liability protections too, while a plurality, 48 percent, opposed them. And on that issue, Democratic lawmakers have indicated some room for negotiation, if Republicans are willing to specify the precautions reopening businesses, schools and medical providers need to take.

Senate Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin, for example, says any such protections should only go to entities that follow guidelines established by public health experts. Republicans “cannot argue that we should give immunity to businesses if they live up to some guidelines and not tell us where those guidelines originate and whether they are based on science and public health standards,” he said on June 30.

On July 14, six House Democrats — Lou Correa of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, and Colin Allred and Henry Cuellar of Texas, along with Dean Phillips and Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota — signed on to a bipartisan letter endorsing the same concept. “We want to ensure businesses are able to operate in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of their employees and customers,” they wrote.

Republicans aides, meanwhile, were evenly divided on another round of checks for middle- and lower-income Americans like the $1,200 ones provided in the CARES Act. Thirty-seven percent of the GOP staffers said they supported another round, while 37 percent said they did not.

The Democrats’ May bill offers a more generous payout than the CARES Act did, with $1,200 going to anyone who made $75,000 or less in 2019, along with another $1,200 for dependents. McConnell has said he’d provide another round, but restrict it to people who earned $40,000 or less.

McConnell’s tweet also opens the door for more funding for reopening schools, which need to pay for protective equipment and, potentially, for more classroom space and additional teachers in order to adhere to social distancing requirements. The CARES Act provided $13 billion for them, much of which remains unspent, while the Democrats’ May bill would provide $100 billion more. Pelosi on July 15 said: “We may need even more than that.”

Still, only one in five of the GOP respondents to CQ Roll Call's poll backed more aid to states.

Despite the gap between the parties, Pelosi said she was confident there would be a deal. “There’s a recognition that there’s going to be a bill,” she said.

Overall, many of the Republican and Democratic aides surveyed by CQ Roll Call feel positively about how Congress has fought the virus so far, with 57 percent of the GOP aides and a plurality of the Democratic ones, 47 percent, saying as much.

They were still more positive about how Congress has helped Americans who’ve lost their jobs or some income because of the pandemic, with 69 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of the Republicans judging their efforts effective.