Bipartisan talks resume on coronavirus relief package

Offers and counteroffers emerge; new bicameral package proposes a middle ground at $908 billion

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., says not completing a short-term aid package would be 'stupidity on steroids.' (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., says not completing a short-term aid package would be 'stupidity on steroids.' (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 1, 2020 at 9:58am, Updated at 5:53pm

Congressional leaders of both parties made a new push Tuesday to find a compromise on a long-stalled COVID-19 aid package that lawmakers could pass this month.

For the first time since October, Speaker Nancy Pelosi resumed talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and briefed him on a new aid proposal she drafted with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Mnuchin agreed to review the proposal, which was sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Pelosi said in a statement after her phone call.

McConnell, meanwhile, circulated among senators his own plan that he said President Donald Trump would be willing to sign. That plan was finalized after conferring Tuesday morning with Mnuchin, McCarthy and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, McConnell said.

In a sign that both sides are treating the talks seriously, neither camp spoke publicly about the contents of their respective relief plans. “It was a private proposal in an effort to move things forward,” Schumer told reporters.

McConnell, in a separate news conference, likewise kept mum. “We’re going to get feedback about how our members feel about it and then determine the way forward," he said.

A summary of McConnell's plan, obtained by CQ Roll Call, suggests it has a number of similarities to a $519 billion package that Republicans offered earlier this fall that Democrats dismissed as "emaciated" relief.

Among the biggest elements of the new package is $332.7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, mostly to provide a second round of loans, which are forgivable if employers keep their workers on the payroll.

That's $75 billion more than their earlier proposal for a "second draw" PPP round, with increases set aside to cover costs such as "frontline" workers' protective equipment and to reduce the eligibility threshold from a 35 percent revenue drop to 25 percent.

The increased small business funding includes $15 billion in grants to live venues and theaters. There's no specific aid to restaurants as Democrats and some Republicans have pushed for, but the GOP summary said increased PPP funds would help businesses with a lot of frontline workers, such as restaurants.

The plan would extend for a month a program that extends unemployment benefits to those who have exhausted them, along with a program that grants unemployment benefits to those who don't traditionally qualify for them, such as "gig" workers and the self-employed.

But it doesn't appear to offer any expanded benefit beyond what states provide. An added $600 benefit expired in July, and for a time the Trump administration authorized a $300 weekly add-on but those funds dried up in September. Republicans had included a $300 weekly benefit through Dec. 27 in their earlier bill.

'Three-martini lunches'

Another change from the earlier "skinny" GOP package is the inclusion of full expensing for business meals.

McConnell's bill again insists on liability protection for employers from pandemic-related lawsuits if they follow federal health guidelines, while offering no new aid to state and local governments except for schools.

"Leader McConnell wants to do tax breaks for three-martini lunches and broad legal immunity for his corporate donors. It’s insulting to the American people," Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement.

Like the earlier GOP proposal, it would provide $105 billion for schools, $16 billion for virus testing and tracing, $31 billion for vaccines, $20 billion for farm assistance, and $10 billion to forgive a Treasury loan to the U.S. Postal Service under certain conditions.

The plan would rescind all unused money in some Federal Reserve pandemic lending programs to save $429 billion, as Mnuchin has proposed. Members of the Federal Reserve Board and top Democrats opposed Treasury's move.

Lawmakers have left themselves little time to draft and pass a major relief package, with a lame-duck Congress set to adjourn for the year next week. McConnell said any aid bill would likely need to be attached to a year-end spending package needed to avoid a partial government shutdown. Current stopgap funding is set to run dry on Dec. 11.

“It’ll all likely come in one package,” McConnell said.

Middle ground sought

The late push for action came amid mounting political pressure in both parties to reach a deal that would address the mounting economic and medical toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in recent months, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers unveiled their own $908 billion aid package Tuesday in an attempt to break the gridlock.

The proposal offers a middle ground between the $2.4 trillion measure sought by House Democrats and the measure pushed by Senate Republicans. The package is designed to provide enough relief through the end of March, lawmakers said.

“It’s inexcusable for us to leave town and not have an agreement,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a leader of the bipartisan group that presented its plan at a news conference. “It’s not the time for political brinkmanship.”

But it wasn’t clear whether the latest attempt at compromise would fare any better than previous bipartisan plans.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is part of the bipartisan group, said Mnuchin and McConnell were consulted on the proposal. But Romney said neither expressed either support or opposition to the plan.

Schumer, in his news conference, called the bipartisan plan “a good effort” but said, “we have to see the details.”

The new bipartisan measure, billed as a “framework” for an aid compromise, includes pieces of relief programs lawmakers have tried for months to pass.

The biggest single piece is $288 billion in relief for small businesses, including a new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, along with Economic Injury Disaster Loans and aid to restaurants, according to a chart summarizing the proposal.

It also includes $180 billion for expanded unemployment insurance benefits, which Manchin said would provide an extra $300 a week for 18 weeks.

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State and local governments, which have struggled to make up for lost revenue from economic shutdowns, would get $160 billion.  Republicans have resisted the aid, saying they don’t want to bail out poorly managed states.

But both sides have been willing to provide direct aid for public schools struggling to reopen safely. The bipartisan plan pitched Tuesday would provide $82 billion to help state and local governments patch up one of their biggest individual budget holes.

And the package attempts to find a compromise on liability protections for employers against pandemic-related lawsuits. The summary calls for “short-term” liability protection “with the purpose of giving states time to develop their own response.”

“It builds upon President [Donald] Trump’s commitment to get something done,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in urging Republicans to support the package. “This is a victory for common sense.”

Other pieces of the package include:

  • $45 billion in aid for the transportation industry, including airlines, buses, transit and Amtrak.
  • $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution, along with virus testing and tracing.
  • $35 billion for health care providers, such as hospitals.
  • $4 billion in student loan forgiveness.
  • $25 billion in rental housing assistance.
  • $26 billion for nutrition and agriculture aid.
  • $10 billion for the U.S. Postal Service.
  • $10 billion for child care assistance.

The new initiative comes as the country faces what President-elect Joe Biden warned would be a “dark winter” of economic and medical hardship.

The number of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. now stands at nearly 13.3 million, with a death toll exceeding 266,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 11 million people remain out of work, compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And in the latest sign of distress in the capital region, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority proposed eliminating weekend rail service for the first time and cutting 2,400 positions through attrition, layoffs and buyouts.

Other senators in the group include Republican Susan Collins of Maine, Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, Democrats Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and independent Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.

"It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge," Warner said at Tuesday's press conference.