CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus Stimulus Negotiators Release Framework But Are Far From Deal

The bipartisan group of senators negotiating a deal finally released a summary of their proposal.

WASHINGTON ― The bipartisan group of senators negotiating a coronavirus stimulus deal finally released an updated framework of their proposal Wednesday, pushing ahead with their $900 billion plan even as leaders cast doubt on their compromise and are hawking proposals of their own.

The framework was extremely light on details and far from legislative text ― a sign of just how far lawmakers are from an actual deal ― but the summary included: 

  • $300 billion for the GOP-favored Paycheck Protection Program (which goes toward helping businesses)
  • $160 billion for state and local aid “as the basis for good faith negotiations.”
  • an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits for 16 weeks
  • a 15 percent increase in food assistance benefits for 16 weeks
  • an extension of the current student loan freeze
  • $82 billion for schools
  • $35 billion to support health care workers
  • $25 billion for rental assistance
  • $13 billion for farmers
  • $10 billion for the Postal Service
  • $7 billion for coronavirus vaccine deployment
  • $7 billion for greater contact tracing and testing
  • a bailout for the airline and busing industries

Missing from the proposal was a plan for direct stimulus payments to households; an extension of paid sick leave provisions; or any details on the hotly contested liability shield to protect businesses and other organizations from coronavirus-related lawsuits. A summary provided to HuffPost by a source involved in the negotiations only says “agreement in principle as the basis for good faith negotiations” under a section on the liability shield ― a likely shorthand noting that lawmakers still need to resolve that issue.

Both the liability shield and aid to state and local governments have been major roadblocks to a deal, as Republicans insist on protecting businesses from lawsuits related to bringing workers back and Democrats highlight the threat to public sector employees. Meanwhile, lawmakers from both sides have argued that stimulus checks also ought to be part of another relief bill.

The White House has also started pushing for stimulus checks, albeit at the expense of expanded unemployment benefits. On Tuesday night, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin proposed a one-time $600 check for most Americans and dropped the extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Democrats immediately rejected the idea as “unacceptable.”

But it’s clear there is support for including direct stimulus checks, even though the bipartisan framework has avoided that issue. Checks could be added in the final stages of negotiations ― or they may not, as lawmakers try to keep the price tag of a deal under $1 trillion.

Stimulus checks are immensely popular with voters and are a point of importance for many lawmakers who feel the stimulus needs to be larger to help the economy and struggling Americans.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost Tuesday night that her two priorities in a bill were stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits, noting that she was so eager to get a deal that she could accept some form of a temporary liability shield.

“It’s a bitter pill,” she said. “I think it’s one that we could swallow if it’s really limited in scope.”

Republicans are far from agreement on a temporary liability shield that Democrats might accept. GOP negotiators have continued advocating for four years of liability protection, which seems like a non-starter for Democrats and which Ocasio-Cortez explicitly said was unacceptable. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposal earlier this week to leave out the liability shield in exchange for leaving out state and local funding indicated that Republicans have some willingness to meet Democrats halfway on the employer protections.

Democrats, for the record, immediately resisted the idea of leaving out state and local aid.

The state and local aid may actually be the biggest roadblock to a deal at this point. House Democrats have passed two bills with funding for state and local governments ― one in May with $1 trillion in funding, and one in October with over $400 billion.

States are facing major budget shortfalls this year. And in a number of state constitutions, their government can’t run a deficit, meaning state lawmakers and governors would have to drastically cut programs.

But Republicans are generally resistant to bailing out states. Even the ones who see some need for aid don’t see as much need as Democrats. And the provisions for state and local aid are far from decided, as well as the formula for deciding how aid would be divvied up.

If Republicans insist on a formula that stresses each state getting a roughly equal portion of the money, rather than money being divided by population, that would mean that states like California will be grossly underfunded. That could be a redline for Democrats, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who hails from California.

One item that will attract Democrats is the expanded unemployment benefits.

The summary says the proposal would reauthorize federal unemployment programs for 16 weeks, meaning they will simply continue to exist. But three sources with knowledge of the framework said it would also make it so that someone who had already received the maximum number of weeks provided by those programs could get another 16 weeks of benefits — with an extra $300 a week on top.

With the current federal unemployment programs in place, layoff victims in most states can receive up to 39 weeks of benefits, which is roughly nine months. Millions of people got laid off from their jobs in March, can’t return to work because of the virus, and are reaching the end of their benefits window. States typically provide just six months of compensation. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and other Democrats have pushed for additional weeks of jobless pay.  The bipartisan compromise would push the total weeks to 55 — so a little more than 12 months.