‘Skinny’ coronavirus relief plan grows slightly; Senate to vote Thursday

Proposal to cost less than earlier $1 trillion package; measure unlikely to advance in Senate, but could bolster GOP incumbents

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., is sounding more comfortable with a revised COVID-19 aid package. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., is sounding more comfortable with a revised COVID-19 aid package. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2020 at 10:25am, Updated at 4:28pm

Senate Republicans are proposing to beef up a “skinny” coronavirus relief package by more than 100 pages, including an enhanced deduction for charitable giving, $20 billion for farmers and ranchers and money for child care and stockpiling medical supplies.

A vote on the package, which isn’t expected to advance over Democratic opposition, could come on Thursday, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican said Tuesday morning before introducing the revised bill that it would be “targeted” to the “very most urgent” needs facing Americans dealing with the continued pandemic fallout.

“Senators will not be voting on whether this targeted package satisfies every one of their legislative hopes and dreams,” McConnell said in floor remarks later on Tuesday. “We vote on whether to make laws, whether to forge a compromise, whether to do a lot of good for the country and keep arguing over the remaining differences later.”

McConnell later on Tuesday filed a motion to end debate on the underlying legislative vehicle, a measure that has already become law separately. Using a “shell” that has already passed both chambers enables the Senate to skip a procedural step and vote on cloture Thursday.

An official price tag wasn’t available, but the new measure appears to contain more than $500 billion in assistance. While larger than an earlier draft circulated last month, that would still be substantially shy of the $1 trillion July rollout that landed with a thud among Senate Republicans.

[Scaled-back GOP aid package would write off $10 billion postal loan]

The new measure also contains at least $350 billion in offsets, according to a summary, to make added headway with GOP fiscal conservatives, like Rick Scott of Florida. In a Tuesday tweet, Scott wrote that while he was still reviewing the legislation, he was “glad” that McConnell has “listened to my input to ensure it is appropriately targeted to provide relief to Americans in need.”

To reduce the net cost, Republicans would cancel $204 billion out of $500 billion appropriated to the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department in the March aid package for loans to businesses and states and municipalities. A GOP summary of the proposal said that out of the original funding, $259 billion remains unallocated. Additional unused lending authority would be “clawed back” starting next year.

Senate Republicans are also proposing to rescind $146 billion in Paycheck Protection Program money that hasn’t yet been used by eligible small businesses for the forgivable loan program. The funds would be plowed back into a nearly $258 billion expansion of the program to allow a “second draw” for smaller firms experiencing sharp revenue losses.

Even with the reduced overall price tag, Rand Paul, R-Ky., sounded like he wouldn't support the package unless there was zero deficit impact. "I'm not for borrowing any more money," he said.

Wooing skeptics

Other GOP spending skeptics, such as Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, could be assuaged by tax provisions added to the new version.

The revised package would bolster a new charitable deduction of up to $300 for taxpayers who don’t itemize, doubling that figure for single filers and allowing up to $1,200 in charitable write-offs for joint filers who claim the standard deductions. Lee introduced a more generous version of that provision in June with bipartisan support, including from former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Cruz has been pushing since last year to expand eligible uses of 529 education savings accounts to allow parents to withdraw funds for home schooling purposes. With COVID-19 making home schooling expenses much more prevalent, Senate GOP leaders added the provision to their new skinny relief bill.

The measure would also provide both direct grants for, and tax credits for contributions to, so-called scholarship granting organizations in states that fund expenditures such as home schooling expenses and private school tuition.

That may not be enough for Josh Hawley, R-Mo., however. His press office tweeted that Hawley was looking for a fully refundable tax credit to cover home schooling costs, which would be more generous than Cruz's legislation.

There’s also a lengthy section on provisions intended to make the U.S. less dependent on China and others for critical minerals, borrowing from an earlier, $1 trillion package that Republicans released in late July. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has championed such measures for years, and similar provisions were included in the relief package that Republicans rolled out in July.

The $20 billion in farm relief had been sought by Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, among others. And a $500 million addition for fisheries aid is likely to please Susan Collins, R-Maine. Massachusetts Democrats Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren have also pressed for the fisheries aid.

The new proposal also would provide $15 billion to help states finance child care services for low-income families and to help day care providers reopen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has been a vocal advocate for the child care funds, which Republicans included in their July bill. Ernst and Collins are “Toss-up” Senate races for reelection in November, according to ratings by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

“It’s easy to tell in Washington whether somebody’s end goal is political posturing or getting an outcome,” McConnell said. “Every senator who has said they want a bipartisan outcome for the country will have a chance to vote for everyone to see.”

Despite the additions, much of the core of the bill remains the same from the skinny version circulated in August. The key features include $300 in added weekly unemployment insurance benefits through Dec. 27, as well as the additional PPP funding. It would also turn a $10 billion U.S. Postal Service loan into a grant if the agency’s cash on hand drops precipitously. And liability shield measures for businesses, schools and health care providers are preserved.

In one key omission, however, Republicans dropped a roughly $300 billion second round of direct payments to households, which would send checks or direct deposits of up to $1,200 per person, with additional funds for households with children. And none of the GOP proposals thus far would include additional funding for state and local government relief, which Democrats have been pushing hard for.

'We're not going to get 60'

The narrower legislation is unlikely to advance in the narrowly divided Senate, where 60 votes are required to end debate and vote on the underlying bill. Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., the party's top vote-counter, conceded as much on Tuesday. "We're not going to get much help from the Democrats, so we're not going to get 60," he said.

Even before the package was released, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer released a joint statement blasting the new GOP package. They said they were willing to work on a bipartisan bill but that Republicans were headed “in the wrong direction” with a bill that “doesn’t come close” to addressing the nation’s problems.

“As they scramble to make up for this historic mistake, Senate Republicans appear dead-set on another bill which doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere,” Schumer and Pelosi said.

Pelosi has said her party has already offered significant compromises, including a proposed 35 percent cut to the $3.4 trillion package that House Democrats passed in May. The new $2.2 trillion bottom line is over $1 trillion more than the Republicans’ original package that they introduced in July.

The gap between the parties might be narrowing somewhat, however. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said late last month that the administration could support a $1.3 trillion plan, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested last week that the figure could creep up to $1.5 trillion.

Ellyn Ferguson and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.