Stimulus Talks Take Pessimistic Turn Over Liability Protections
(Bloomberg) -- Stimulus talks between President Donald Trump’s representatives and Democrats bogged down Tuesday over demands by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that his proposed changes to liability law be included wholesale in the aid package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said McConnell’s insistence that his plan for shielding businesses, schools and other organizations against litigation stemming from coronavirus cases be in the bill exactly as proposed suggests that he’s not serious about reaching a deal.
“It wasn’t a good way for us to begin the discussion,” Pelosi said after she and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Mnuchin and Meadows, who had conferred with Senate Republicans over lunch before heading into the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, echoed the pessimistic tone after their second meeting with the Democrats aimed at bridging differences over the next round of aid aimed at helping the nation weather the coronavirus pandemic.
“We still obviously have a lot of work to do,” Mnuchin said. “I don’t know that I would characterize it as getting closer,” Meadows said.
McConnell and Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion stimulus package on Monday that is a far cry from the $3.5 trillion proposal that Democrats have put on the table. While there is some common ground on issues like small business aid, stimulus checks for individuals and money to expand coronavirus testing and eventual vaccine distribution, there are major hurdles to any potential compromise.
Some Senate Republicans express dissatisfaction with the size of the party’s package, arguing against spending even the smaller amount in the GOP proposals.
The intra-party split leaves McConnell with little room in negotiations, and Democrats are seeking to use GOP dissension to exert maximum pressure.
Trump weighed in on the negotiations on Tuesday, saying there are some things in the Republican package that he doesn’t support.
“It’s sort of semi-irrelevant because the Democrats come with their needs and asks and the Republicans go with theirs,” Trump said of the proposals. “We’ll be discussing it with Mitch and all of the other people involved.”
Meadows told reporters Tuesday that Democrats are drawing a red line of their own, insisting on the $600 supplemental unemployment insurance benefit. He said they have also demanded $915 billion for state and local aid, but haven’t made that amount non-negotiable.
“I don’t know that anything has been definitively ruled in or out, other than what Leader McConnell talks about liability protection having to be in,” Meadows said.
McConnell reaffirmed his insistence on the liability shield Tuesday in an interview on CNBC, saying the legislation “will have liability protection in it, so we’re not negotiating with the Democrats over that.”
Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said he doesn’t see any reason his party would support McConnell’s plan to shield businesses, schools and other organizations from lawsuits over Covid-19 infections from employees or customers.
“This is an effort by the Republicans to seize the moment and to push through changes in tort law that they have been longing for for decades that have nothing to do with Covid-19,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday.
A short time earlier, McConnell spoke on the Senate floor in defense of the Republican plan to cut supplemental unemployment aid to $200 a week from the $600 a week that was included in an earlier stimulus. That would be the level set until states, which administer the benefits, could devise a system to use federal funds to replace 70% of a worker’s lost wages.
He and other Republicans contend that the higher payment discourages workers from returning to jobs, which Democrats and some economists dispute.
”The American people don’t call that a controversy,” he said. “They call it common sense.”
There’s pressure on Republicans to act months after McConnell pressed the pause button on new aid. Earlier stimulus measures are beginning to run dry as soaring virus cases and deaths are disrupting the economy. That’s caused Trump’s poll ratings to slump, threatening GOP control of both the White House and Senate.
But some Republicans are saying they are concerned about more deficit spending and signaling they won’t support the plan McConnell has put forth.
“If Mitch can get half of the conference, I think that would be quite an accomplishment,” South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Senator Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, said McConnell needs to strike the right balance in any final stimulus or risk losing a large group of Republicans in a vote on it. He’s pleased the initial GOP proposal is $1 trillion, but he said it can’t get too much larger.
“The bigger the price tag gets, the fewer Republicans that will support it,” he said.
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