Details of $908 Billion U.S. Pandemic Relief Plan Set for Release
(Bloomberg) -- With Republican and Democratic negotiators struggling to reach an agreement on both a mammoth government spending bill and Covid-19 relief, lawmakers are set to postpone what had been a Friday night deadline for passing a bill.
Talks over a $908 billion pandemic relief plan have slowed, with negotiators still working to resolve key details on state and local aid as well as liability protections for businesses. Lawmakers are also still wrangling over a $1.4 trillion omnibus bill to fund the government into 2021, to which the Covid-19 package would be attached.
With current funding set to expire Dec. 11, the House is planning to vote Wednesday on a one-week continuing resolution to avert a shutdown, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a tweet. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his chamber would pass the funding extension “whenever we get it” from the House.
McConnell didn’t directly address the bipartisan compromise proposal in remarks on the Senate floor. He said both parties urgently need to act on measures that have broad support, such as aid for businesses, extended unemployment benefits and money for vaccines. All of their other disagreements “aren’t going to be resolved over night,” he said.
The bare-bones outline of the coronavirus relief plan proposed by a group of lawmakers from both parties spurred a flurry of optimism last week when it won the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer and a number of Republican senators as the basis for fresh talks after a half-year of stalemate.
But talks over the weekend and on Monday have not made enough progress to release final details yet, according to congressional aides.
The group’s final proposal is likely to remain around $908 billion and include $160 billion for states and local governments, one Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations said. The group is still working out a funding formula that would steer the federal monies to states with the greatest need, the aide said.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican leader, said it’s possible a pandemic relief bill could move this week on the stop-gap measure or later on the broader spending package. Still, he and others acknowledge a stimulus bill still has some hangups.
A key sticking point is liability protections for companies from Covid-19 lawsuits, a Republican priority. The draft bipartisan plan contains a six-month moratorium on lawsuits, but the GOP wants federal tort law changes.
Senate Republican leaders made clear Monday evening that the package must have liability reforms that McConnell supports in order for Republicans to consider any state and local aid.
”Ultimately it is going to have to satisfy Senator McConnell because it’s been one of his lead priorities since the beginning of this,” Thune said.
Negotiations led by GOP Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin seeking a compromise on liability language remain at an impasse, Cornyn told reporters. He also said a compromise offered by GOP Senator Mitt Romney of Utah -- that employers get a lawsuit shield for 2020 and then state legislatures pass their own liability laws -- is unworkable in his view.
Democrats are continuing to push hard against the drive by Cornyn and McConnell for an approach that moves Covid-19 related lawsuits against employers from state to federal courts.
White House top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Monday that Trump hasn’t endorsed the bipartisan proposal but would “likely” sign a $908 billion package, though the details matter.
“I believe that it is likely he will -- but, again, it depends importantly on some of the policy details inside,” Kudlow said at a Washington Post virtual event.
The bipartisan group is also facing pressure from progressives to add more relief to the bill.
Senator Bernie Sanders said he’d oppose the compromise because it lacked $1,200 individual stimulus checks, something that President-elect Joe Biden also wanted included. McConnell and other Republicans are skeptical about the scale of $160 billion in aid assigned to states, which GOP members have criticized as an improper bailout.
“We’re trying to narrow the scope, get the relief out there flowing” to the priority areas both sides can agree on, said Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican and co-head of the bipartisan Problem Solvers group that is also backing the package. “We were trying to get to that sweet spot, that common ground.”
Payments to individuals would blow out the price tag, Reed said. While Hoyer said the $908 billion figure was the “lowest we should go to,” it’s still well above the roughly $500 billion that Senate Republicans had favored in the fall. Pelosi had previously pushed for a $2.4 trillion package.
The 2021 spending legislation also faces several obstacles to completion, including Trump’s demand for border-wall financing and a dispute over whether $12.5 billion in Veterans Affairs health funding should be allowed as an emergency above the budget cap.
That omnibus bill has also been held back by as many as 300 minor policy disputes, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby. Among these have been federal protections for the sage grouse, policy on biomass energy and funding for police anti-racism training.
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