Bipartisan group strikes deal on coronavirus relief package

Liability, state and local aid to be split off, giving leadership some options

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., is among the lawmakers pushing for the coronavirus aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., is among the lawmakers pushing for the coronavirus aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 13, 2020 at 6:27pm

The group of Senate and House lawmakers negotiating a $908 billion COVID-19 relief package has reached agreement on business liability waivers and state and local government aid provisions, but those will be broken into a separate bill, according to a source familiar with the plan.

The larger $748 billion piece, which includes unemployment insurance, small-business relief, money for education, vaccine distribution and more, plus the separate bill with $160 billion for state and local governments and the liability protections, will be introduced Monday.

The bifurcated approach gives congressional leaders options as they try to assemble a massive year-end legislative package including a $1.4 trillion collection of a dozen fiscal 2021 appropriations bills. Other items still in play include legislation aimed at cracking down on surprise medical bills modeled on a bipartisan agreement reached Friday, and renewal of expiring tax breaks and health care programs.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still pressing for state and local relief in any final coronavirus relief package, however. Pelosi "believes, at a time when the virus is surging, that the need for state and local funding is even more important, especially given the states’ responsibility for distributing and administering the vaccine," her spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted Sunday night.

In a 30-minute call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday afternoon, Pelosi also "reiterated her view that a compromise on the liability issue should be found that does not jeopardize workers’ safety."

Pelosi and Mnuchin also discussed the surprise billing compromise, which the White House supports, and its roughly $16 billion in savings they want to use to pay for health care extenders. Hammill said the two plan to speak again on Monday.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans suggested dropping the state and local relief funding they oppose in exchange for dropping the business liability protections Democrats have fought. Democratic leaders initially blasted that offer as insufficient, but with time running short there were signs McConnell's approach might be back on the table.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said earlier Sunday on CNN's "Inside Politics" that he'd been speaking with congressional leaders from both parties over the weekend and the goal was to "get the essential done."

Democrats "are not going to get everything we want. We think state and local [aid] is important. And if we can get that we want to get it," Hoyer told CNN. "But we want to get aid out to the people who are really, really struggling and are at grave risk."

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, one of the lead Republicans working on the bipartisan plan, said "we're the only bipartisan game in town" but that final decisions were up to the leadership.

"We're going to introduce a bill tomorrow night. Now the leadership can discard it. I can't govern that. I can only do that which is before me," Cassidy said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

The relatively noncontroversial $748 billion piece is expected to provide, among other things, $300 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program and other small business assistance; $180 billion to renew a $300 per week federal unemployment insurance supplement for 16 weeks; $25 billion in rental assistance and $13 billion in financial assistance to agriculture and fisheries.

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The other $160 billion has proven harder to maneuver. That legislation will package limited liability protection from COVID-19 related lawsuits with assistance to state and local governments that has faced particular skepticism from within the Senate Republican Conference.

Few Republicans have come out in support of more direct aid to states and localities. Cassidy and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, whose energy-dependent states have seen a collapse in demand sink their revenue collections, are among them.

“My state has seen a 33 percent decline in revenues due to COVID,” Murkowski told reporters Friday. “So we're a state that is really, really hurting right now. So for us, the state and local piece to help with lost revenues for our local communities is huge."

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III said on "Fox News Sunday" that he was optimistic the group’s compromise bill would provide a solution to the liability question that has tripped up Congress for months.

“We're not changing the tort laws forever. We're just trying to get through an emergency period of time,” he said.

Details of the state and local aid and liability protection agreements weren't immediately available.

Rebate checks

Even if congressional leaders can reach a deal on coronavirus aid provisions as well as the remaining omnibus package items, it's unclear lawmakers can clear everything in time to beat a new Dec. 18 deadline for action. President Donald Trump signed a one-week stopgap spending bill Friday night.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., want to provide another round of direct payments to U.S. households and are planning to hold up the spending package unless they get a vote on that proposal.

“Whether it’s a [continuing resolution] next week or an omnibus, [Sanders] anticipates putting a hold on that to get a vote on this if it’s not already been attached to another vehicle or isn’t in a COVID relief proposal,” Hawley told reporters Friday.

McConnell could amend the package before sending it back to the House, though with the government only funded through Friday there isn’t much time for legislative ping pong.

David Lerman contributed to this report.