Bipartisan House group unveils $1.5 trillion coronavirus relief plan

Problem Solvers Caucus offers compromise on unemployment, state and local aid sticking points, but leaders may not embrace

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., listens as Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., speaks at a Problem Solvers Caucus press conference in February. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., listens as Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., speaks at a Problem Solvers Caucus press conference in February. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 10:36am

The 50-member, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus on Tuesday released a $1.5 trillion COVID-19 aid package that they hope will help push congressional leaders and the White House toward a similar compromise.

The measure also gives the caucus members, many of whom are considered vulnerable for reelection this cycle, an opportunity to tell voters they offered a compromise and deflect blame for potential inaction on a new aid bill before the elections.

In arriving at $1.5 trillion, the Problem Solvers plan is almost exactly halfway between the $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May and a $300 billion proposal Senate Republicans offered on the floor last week. Their proposal, however, includes automatic triggers based on hospitalization rates and progress towards vaccine development that could increase the cost by as much as $400 billion or reduce it by up to $200 billion.

The caucus officially endorsed the proposal, which requires support from at least 75 percent of its members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Problem Solvers co-chairmen Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., kept party leaders apprised of the group's work, but top Democrats at least have already made their displeasure known.

An unusual joint statement from several House Democratic committee leaders Tuesday afternoon said the bipartisan plan "falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy."

White House negotiators, having expressed openness to going up to $1.5 trillion, may be more open to the plan than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has said Democrats wouldn't go lower than $2.2 trillion.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who's pushed to keep the price tag in the lower $1 trillion range, has spoken with Problem Solvers Caucus members in recent weeks.

Speaking Tuesday morning on CNBC, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn't embrace the compromise plan but didn't shoot it down, either. Instead he called out Pelosi as the obstacle to a deal, citing the Problem Solvers plan as evidence that "her own members are upset" by the lack of action.

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He suggested Pelosi didn't want a deal because it would hurt President Donald Trump's reelection prospects, even at the risk of some of her own vulnerable House incumbents. "I know her dislike for this presidency, but we should put the country first," McCarthy said.

Pelosi fired back at McCarthy in a later CNBC interview on Tuesday. "You know, I wouldn't stoop to the level of responding to silliness that has no idea," Pelosi said. "We are committed to staying here until we have an agreement, an agreement that meets the needs of the American people."

'Can't afford to do nothing'

At a press conference Tuesday, Reed said he's gotten positive signals from his own leadership and the White House about the bipartisan plan. "They want to get a deal," he said.

Gottheimer declined to characterize his leadership's view of their proposal.

He said the group wasn't putting out legislative text; rather, the proposal was intended to kickstart negotiations. "We're trying to say to all the parties involved, 'Here is a framework. Here is a roadmap. Let's take it. Let's get this done,'" Gottheimer said.

Even if it's not embraced warmly by top negotiators, the Problem Solvers proposal offers compromise positions on some of the key issues that have divided the parties.

"We can't afford to do nothing until the next inauguration," Gottheimer told CNBC on Tuesday. "We're just asking folks to get back to the table, given what we're facing."

The plan would extend the weekly federal enhanced unemployment benefit that expired in July at $450 for eight weeks, after which it would transition to $600 per week but capped at 100 percent of a person's previous wage. The benefits would expire at the end of January 2021 and cost a total of $120 billion, but the plan includes an automatic trigger that could provide an extra three months if conditions warrant, at a cost of $120 billion.

State and local governments would get $500 billion in new assistance, as well as more flexibility to spend leftover funds from a prior relief bill enacted in March. Democrats wanted $915 billion in new money for direct state and local aid, Senate Republicans wanted none, and the White House offered around $150 billion.

The new money in the Problem Solvers plan would be divided three ways: $130 billion for future COVID-19 expenses for both state and local governments, $120 billion for local revenue shortfalls and $250 billion for state revenue shortfalls. The proposal includes an automatic trigger to reduce the state and local funds by $130 billion if conditions warrant.

The proposal would provide $25 billion in rental assistance to complement an eviction moratorium, with an automatic trigger to reduce the amount by $10 billion if certain metrics are met. Pelosi has called for $100 billion to help renters, while Republicans did not offer up any money for that purpose.

Lower-income Americans would get another round of direct payments — $1,200 for adults and $500 for children, similar to the Democrats' bill — at a cost of $280 billion. Another identical round of checks could be sent out in March if progress towards tamping down the virus lags.

The White House also backed direct payments, but some Senate Republicans opposed spending on that, so it was left out of the GOP bill that was blocked in a procedural vote last week.

['Skinny' coronavirus relief bill blocked in Senate]

The Problem Solvers also seek to bridge the divide between Democrats who want stronger Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections for workers and Republicans who want to provide liability protections for businesses. Their proposal is to provide liability protections for entities that follow enhanced OSHA guidelines.

Other details

The bipartisan plan would also provide:

  • $100 billion for K-12 schools, regardless of whether they're open for virtual, in-person or hybrid learning.
  • $30 billion for higher education institutions.
  • $15 billion for child care providers.
  • $95 billion for a revamped small-business loan program, plus $145 billion in unspent Paycheck Protection Program funds that would be reprogrammed, with an automatic trigger to reduce by $60 billion if health care metrics are met.
  • $25 billion for testing and contact tracing.
  • $30 billion to expand telehealth services and other provider support.
  • $45 billion in Medicare loan forgiveness for providers.
  • $25 billion for agriculture and aquaculture producers and processors.
  • $15 billion for the U.S. Postal Service.
  • $12 billion for broadband hot spots in underserved communities.
  • $10 billion to provide a 15 percent boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through July 2021 and an additional $1 billion for an equivalent boost to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program through March 2021.
  • $400 million in election assistance to states.
  • Forbearance for federal student loans through the end of 2020.

David Lerman contributed to this report.