Congress Showing Renewed Interest In COVID-19 Relief Bill

Party leaders are discussing proposals while a bipartisan group of lawmakers agitates for a compromise.

After weeks of stalemate, party leaders are once again trading proposals to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and rank-and-file lawmakers are newly agitating for a deal by negotiating among themselves.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke Tuesday to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about another pandemic response bill for the first time since talks broke down shortly before the election. Pelosi also revealed that she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had sent Republicans a new offer on Monday evening.

“Additional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame-duck session,” Pelosi said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, is pushing his own smaller relief measure, while a bipartisan group of rank-and-file lawmakers are pursuing a compromise between the two sides.

Their $908 billion proposal would reauthorize federal unemployment programs and resurrect a federal supplement that expired in July, though at only $300 per week instead of the previous $600, for an additional four months. The package would give state governments $160 billion, which has been a priority for Democratic lawmakers, and offer businesses a Republican-sought temporary ban on coronavirus lawsuits.

It would not include another round of stimulus checks.

The compromise was negotiated by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Angus King (I-Maine), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). The framework also has the support of several House members.

“We worked night and day throughout the Thanksgiving recess,” Collins said at a press conference where the lawmakers praised themselves and said their work showed Congress could rise to the occasion. They described the product of their talks as a “framework” that could break a persistent stalemate.

Party leaders still control what legislation gets votes in the House and Senate and will control the final details of any COVID-19 relief package that passes Congress, but the ad hoc bipartisan proposal could increase pressure on leaders to reach a compromise.

Nearly 12 million people are set to lose federal unemployment benefits at the end of the month unless lawmakers agree to a deal extending relief measures they passed early in the pandemic. A moratorium on evictions, student debt forbearance and tax breaks are also at risk of expiring.

Congressional negotiations over a coronavirus stimulus bill have been at a standstill for months, with no talks occurring between the parties or with the administration. Democrats have demanded a more comprehensive $2 trillion package they say is needed to adequately address the crisis; Republicans say a slimmed-down measure of about $500 billion is needed.

Pelosi still has leverage. Even if the Senate is able to reach a compromise and finally pass additional relief to aid millions of struggling Americans, a bill would still need to get through the Democratic-controlled House. Any deal would ultimately need support from Pelosi, who has insisted on a larger bill.

“The real question is not the money involved ― I think this is a reasonable amount of money ― the real question is whether the House of Representatives and Speaker Pelosi are ready to drop their policy demands,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told HuffPost when asked about the new proposal on Tuesday.

The deal would first need support from McConnell, however. The Kentucky Republican unveiled a similar $1 trillion stimulus package in July but was quickly forced to abandon it after fierce opposition from conservatives in his caucus who have renewed their opposition to deficit spending.

“Leader McConnell has long said that he thought that we should have another bill brought to the floor. Obviously, our bill isn’t drafted yet and I’m sure he’d want to see it,” Collins told HuffPost on Monday.

McConnell’s top priority amid the negotiations has been a multiyear liability shield for businesses, hospitals and schools from lawsuits dealing with the pandemic. The “epidemic of lawsuits” he warned about earlier this year never really materialized, but Senate Republicans have continued to insist on its inclusion in the next relief bill.

It’s unclear how the temporary liability shield proposed by the bipartisan Senate group would work exactly. But labor groups and worker advocates say broad immunity from lawsuits would strip away one of the main incentives businesses have for keeping workers and consumers safe, especially as coronavirus cases balloon around the country.

David Muraskin said a proposal for immunity would be a “cynical exploitation of a crisis.” His legal group, Public Justice, has sued employers whose workers got sick with COVID-19 in crowded workplaces, including at a Smithfield meatpacking plant in Missouri.

“What we have seen is that companies are wantonly disregarding the health and safety of their workers,” Muraskin said. “The government, at both the state and federal levels, has shown no interest in protecting its people. This is where the legal system is supposed to step in.”

HuffPost asked Warner how long the shield would remain in place.

“We’re still working through that,” Warner said, adding that the group was considering “making the state aid contingent” on states changing their own liability law. McConnell’s proposal would preempt state laws for as many as four years.

An extra $300 per week in unemployment — while only half what Congress provided in the early months of the pandemic — is still more than the federal government had ever added to unemployment benefits prior to this year. In response to the worst recession since the Great Depression, for instance, Congress in 2009 added just $25 to weekly benefits, which average around $300.

A group of Senate Democrats on Tuesday is separately pushing to revive the full $600, a number lawmakers came up with because it represents the difference between the average weekly benefit and the average weekly wage.

Richard Coulter is a career bartender in Palm Springs, California. His bar closed in March and has since reopened in a limited capacity, but not yet called him back to work ― and likely won’t soon so long as a deadly virus is spreading in California and the rest of the country.

Lawmakers understood that the virus would be an obstacle to employment when they expanded unemployment benefits in March, but have lost their appetite for decisive action even though the pandemic is worse than ever.

Coulter, 52, said the extra $600 per week helped him stay current on his bills. Since the supplemental benefit lapsed in July, he’s given up all nonessential spending and fallen behind on credit card payments.

“I was making $80,000 a year and living comfortably and now I’m waiting in food lines,” he said.

He’s now receiving about $450 per week in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides 13 weeks of payments for people who use up their state-funded unemployment insurance. It’s one of the federal benefits that will expire on Dec. 26 if Congress fails to act, stranding 12 million with no income.

The bipartisan compromise would preserve the extra weeks of payments through another four months for those currently receiving them, but it’s unclear whether the proposal would also add additional weeks of benefits for those who have already run out or are close to running out.

Coulter said he’s been following the news closely and is disgusted by the lack of progress on a pandemic relief bill. He thinks Democrats ought to take what they can get from Republicans.

“I’m for everything Pelosi wants, I’m on her side, and I think McConnell’s a jerk, but she’s got to realize Republicans are never going to accept her offer, ever,” Coulter said. “She’s got to compromise. Isn’t something better than nothing?”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story described the bipartisan framework as a “bill,” but it hasn’t yet been put into legislative text.

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