Stabenow says smaller coronavirus relief bill better than nothing

Michigan Democrat joins growing bipartisan chorus pushing for narrower aid package to get through the winter

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow is the chamber's fourth-ranking Democrat. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow is the chamber's fourth-ranking Democrat. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 24, 2020 at 11:44am

A top Senate Democrat said Tuesday that she's engaged in bipartisan discussions on COVID-19 aid and urged quick action even if that means “a short-term package for the next few months.”

“We need to act,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the fourth-ranking Democrat in that chamber as Democratic Policy and Communications Committee chairwoman. “We have good discussions going on, bipartisan discussions in the Senate right now.”

House Democrats and Senate Republicans have been in a standoff for months. House Democrats passed Oct. 1 a slimmed down version of their relief package, though it still weighed in at $2.4 trillion.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been discussing a package worth nearly $2 trillion, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the estimated $519 billion aid package Republicans introduced in September is sufficient.

On Friday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., met with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to discuss legislative priorities.

In a post-meeting readout, the quartet didn't put a number on how big a lame-duck aid package should be. But they said it had to contain "resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments trying to keep frontline workers on the payroll, expanded Unemployment Insurance, and affordable health care for millions of families."

Stabenow’s comments to CNBC Tuesday were similar to those made Nov. 17 by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Portman said at that time he was starting bipartisan talks on “a targeted, effective program that deals with what we have to deal with now, to get through this valley, really, between now and March."

It wasn't immediately clear if Portman was part of the group Stabenow was talking with, though both are members of the Finance Committee with jurisdiction over tax, health care and unemployment insurance programs.

“To me, this is about making sure there are no winners and losers that whatever we do is comprehensive,” Stabenow said. “And it's less about the overall number because even if there is a short-term package for the next few months, until we get into the new Biden administration, we have to act now.”

By comprehensive, Stabenow said she means relief not just for airline workers and Paycheck Protection Program recipients, but for the self-employed and those out of work because of stay-at-home orders.

“I’m not even gonna put a number because to me it's about a few months, maybe it's through the first quarter,” she said.

Stabenow’s remarks also come as pressure rises among House Democrats to reach a deal.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Friday that he hoped to reach an agreement even if wasn’t the much larger package that Democratic leaders have been aiming for.

"I just hope that we can get agreement. It may not be everything that everybody wants but at least if we can get some significant relief to people," Hoyer told CQ Roll Call. "And then we're going to be here next year. If we need to do other things, we'll do other things.”

Hoyer’s comments came after Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pa., sent a letter to House Democratic leaders urging a “targeted” relief bill to help, among others, the as many as 400,000 Pennsylvanians who face possible eviction.

Stabenow also pushed back against the idea that Democrats would wait until the pandemic was over to act on Biden’s proposal to boost the corporate income tax rate. Corporations had been taxed at 35 percent until the 2017 tax code overhaul lowered the rate to 21 percent; Biden would raise that to 28 percent.

“We've got to right size the tax code right now to make sure it's fair for everybody,” said Stabenow. “And during the middle of a pandemic, we've got to make sure that every size business is contributing to the recovery, to our safety, to our national security.”