In an effort to break the stalemate over the next coronavirus relief bill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday released the outline of an emergency spending package totaling $908 billion.
Talks between Democratic and Republican leaders have gone nowhere for months, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calling for a relief bill worth upwards of $2.2 trillion, while Republican lawmakers have shown little interest in any package exceeding $500 billion.
Led by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), the group of centrists is trying to kickstart negotiations at a time when Covid hospitalizations are soaring and economists are growing increasingly concerned about another severe slowdown this winter.
“It’s inexcusable for us to leave town and not have an agreement,” Manchin said at a press conference. “Our action to provide emergency relief is needed now more than ever before. The people need to know we are not going to leave until we get something accomplished.”
Other supporters of the new proposal include Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski (AK), Mitt Romney (UT) and Bill Cassidy (LA), as well as Democratic Senators Mark Warner (VA), Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and independent Angus King (ME). Some members of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, which released a $1.5 trillion stimulus plan in September, have also been involved, including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) Tom Reed (R-NY).
What’s in the plan: Warner described the plan as an “interim package” designed to provide financial support until President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Biden echoed that idea Monday, saying, “Any package passed in lame duck session is - at best - just a start.”
Although the final details have not yet been agreed upon, a draft of the plan shows that it would provide $288 billion for small businesses, $160 billion for state and local governments, and $180 billion for unemployment aid, including a $300 per week supplemental benefit through March.
It would also include short-term liability protections from coronavirus litigation, to protect businesses while states draw up their own rules. It would not, however, provide another round of $1,200 checks for individuals.
Where the money comes from: Romney said the plan involves $348 billion in new money, with the rest coming from unspent funds provided by the Cares Act in March.
“Now, I happen to be a deficit hawk,” Romney said. “I don’t like borrowing money, I don’t like spending money we don’t have. But the time to borrow money, maybe the only time to borrow money, is when there’s a crisis.” Referring to an earlier coronavirus proposal supported by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Romey added, “This is not a $1.8 trillion stimulus bill. This is a relief measure -- half that amount.”
Steep hill to climb: The plan faces critics on all sides, and The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reports that congressional aides have expressed doubts that it will go anywhere. There is some hope, however, that parts of the proposal could be incorporated into the government funding bill that must pass by December 11 – and which could provide the only realistic chance of providing Covid relief funds before Biden takes office. Alternatively, the proposal could provide a starting point for negotiations in the next Congress.
In any event, the bill faces the basic problem of coming from a small group of centrists, who have been far from the center of power in recent years. As Politico’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer put it Tuesday, “Congress is run by the leadership, and most every deal comes … from the leadership. At best, this is a guideline for what a chunk of the Senate is willing to accept. But view this as a Senate version of the Problem Solvers Caucus. And that went nowhere.”
Pelosi and Mnuchin speak: Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke by telephone Tuesday for the first time since October. They reportedly discussed coronavirus relief and the government funding bill, with Mnuchin saying that the White House wants to avoid a shutdown and would prefer to pass a full appropriations bill rather than another short-term continuing resolution.
After the call, Pelosi released a brief statement citing progress in the funding talks while calling for action on the coronavirus relief bill, saying that “[a]dditional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame duck session.”
McConnell circulates new plan: Saying “[w]e just don’t have time to waste time. We have a couple of weeks left here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly circulated a coronavirus relief plan Tuesday that is considerably smaller than the bipartisan proposal released earlier in the day – in effect rejecting the centrist effort while defining what he is willing to accept in a “targeted relief bill.”
McConnell said he expects relief funds to be included in the government funding bill. His specific proposal is unlikely to gain bipartisan support, however, since it lacks funds for state and local governments and provides less money for the unemployed, among other non-starters for Democrats.