Democratic Leaders Embrace Bipartisan COVID-19 Relief Deal Framework

For the first time in months, top lawmakers seem to be in a compromising mood.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Congress should craft its next response to the coronavirus pandemic based on the framework that a bipartisan working group unveiled Tuesday.

The Democratic leaders said in a joint statement Wednesday that “in the spirit of compromise we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.”

That proposal, crafted by a group of moderates and centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), would provide hundreds of billions for state budget gaps, enhanced unemployment benefits and support for small businesses. The rough outline also called for tens of billions for renters, nutrition assistance and vaccine development.

The state aid is more than most Senate Republicans have been willing to accept, but the framework also includes a temporary ban on coronavirus-related lawsuits, an issue that has been their top priority. The liability component is one of the major obstacles to a deal because of opposition from Democrats and the labor community.

“Of course, we and others will offer improvements, but the need to act is immediate and we believe that with good-faith negotiations we could come to an agreement,” the Democrats said in their joint statement. “With the imminent availability of the vaccine, it is important for there to be additional funding for distribution to take the vaccine to vaccination.”

Manchin said Wednesday that Schumer had been very receptive to the framework. “He said, ‘Guys try to make something work,’” Manchin said.

Both Manchin and Romney told HuffPost on Wednesday they hadn’t heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who quickly released his own slimmed-down version of a coronavirus relief package on Tuesday after the ad-hoc group of senators debuted theirs.

More than 10 Senate Republicans had endorsed the bipartisan framework since Tuesday, Manchin said. “I think enough of his colleagues on his side of his caucus have seen the need,” he said of McConnell.

McConnell declined to answer questions from reporters about the bipartisan proposal on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, in a speech on the Senate floor, the Kentucky Republican acknowledged Democrats’ “new willingness to engage in good faith.” But he seemed to throw cold water on the bipartisan proposal by saying that a deal will require the signature of President Donald Trump, who had endorsed McConnell’s slimmer bill.

Romney, meanwhile, noted that bipartisan support is needed to get across the finish line.

“There are messaging bills and then there are bills that can actually pass …anything else that can’t pass is obviously an important message but not something that will change the lives of Americans,” he said when asked about McConnell’s slimmed-down package.

Democrats have pushed to reauthorize unemployment programs expiring this month and also to restore a $600 weekly supplement that expired in July after Congress created it in March to help laid-off workers survive the pandemic. The bipartisan bill would bring back the federal supplement, but at $300 instead of $600.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Democratic author of the pandemic unemployment programs, hailed the compromise but said that despite an agreement on a dollar figure for supplemental benefits, there will be a lot of other provisions to sort out.

“For example, there are several pieces to address on unemployment benefits: reinstating a weekly boost, extending the additional weeks of benefits and program for gig and freelance workers, and ensuring workers experiencing long-term unemployment remain eligible for benefits,” Wyden said. He added that McConnell’s latest bill offered stingier benefits and that the majority leader will likely be a “roadblock” to a final agreement.

Unlike the earlier Democratic proposals, the compromise bill omits another round of direct payments to households.

Lawmakers are working on an extremely tight deadline. They must pass a bill by Dec. 11 to avoid a partial shutdown of the federal government. They also face the expiration of key coronavirus relief programs at the end of the month, including federal unemployment programs supporting 12 million workers.

Some members on both sides of the aisle are hoping to tie McConnell’s bill and the bipartisan bill together, along with another stimulus measure, in a massive funding package before Congress adjourns for the year. But with party leaders still not on the same page and no legislative text drafted for either proposal, they’ll need a miracle to get it to Trump’s desk in time.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Democrats were previously unreasonable.

“They’ve gotten reasonable and I think that could help us get to a solution,” Thune said. “I think there’s still time — although it’s short — to put a deal together.”

This story has been updated to include quotes from Ron Wyden and John Thune.

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