McConnell Refuses to Back Bipartisan Stimulus, Slowing Talks
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, pauses while speaking in Washington. (Photographer: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg)

McConnell Refuses to Back Bipartisan Stimulus, Slowing Talks

Almost a week after Democratic congressional leaders climbed down from their demand for a multi-trillion dollar stimulus package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to tout his own plan, dimming prospects for a proposed bipartisan compromise as the basis for a deal.

McConnell’s top priority -- federal limits on Covid-19 related lawsuits against businesses -- has emerged as a key potential deal-breaker, along with state and local aid that Democrats want. Republicans have balked at the six-month moratorium on lawsuits proposed in a bipartisan stimulus package, saying it’s too limited.

The drafters of the $908 billion bipartisan proposal are planning to release a more detailed outline Tuesday afternoon but without provisions on liability and state and local aid, said Sam Runyon, a spokesman for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, one of the lawmakers involved. Negotiations on those parts of the proposal are continuing.

McConnell’s continued use of rhetoric that pre-dates the shift by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the overall dollar amount of aid underscored the risk of no further Covid-19 help by year-end.

“Drop the all-or nothing tactics,” McConnell said of Democrats on the Senate floor on Monday. He again called on Schumer to allow a vote on a targeted bill that provides extended unemployment insurance, small-business aid and funding for vaccine distribution.

Senators from both sides of the aisle concluded that the prospects for a compromise that Republican and Democratic negotiators are hashing out will come down to McConnell’s decision. Several GOP members have endorsed or been open to the plan, and top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said President Donald Trump would likely sign it. McConnell is engaging the negotiators even though he hasn’t budged.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get somewhere,” McConnell told reporters Monday. “But I have no report at the moment about how.”

McConnell Refuses to Back Bipartisan Stimulus, Slowing Talks

Two Roadblocks

The Republican and Democratic negotiators continued to butt heads over aid for states and localities as well as the coronavirus liability protection for businesses.

“Those are coupled together,” said GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who couldn’t predict whether the relief package will be enacted. “There’s either going to be none for both of those, or both of those that are going to be provided for. My hope is we’ll do both.”

Republicans have blasted state assistance as a bailout for mainly Democratic areas, while Democrats have refused to give employers a shield from lawsuits over poor protection against the spread of Covid-19.

“There are different ways of doing it, different approaches to it, but ultimately it’s going to have to satisfy Senator McConnell because it’s been one of his lead priorities since the beginning of this,” said Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in that chamber.

Time is running ever shorter on getting a deal, with Congress approaching the year-end break. Democratic Senator Christopher Coons said on MSNBC Tuesday that while he remains optimistic, he sees a “real chance” that the Senate breaks up for Christmas without agreement on a relief package.

That relief spending would be attached to either a stopgap federal funding bill or omnibus appropriations legislation that keeps the government running into 2021, Thune said Monday.

The House will vote on a continuing resolution Wednesday to keep the federal government running for an additional week, before the existing stopgap runs out Friday night. McConnell said the Senate would approve that “whenever we get it” from the House.

Spending Bill

Negotiators have also been running into hurdles on the omnibus spending bill, including over money the Trump administration wants assigned for border wall construction. Dozens of other policy fights have sprung up, such as House Democratic moves to protect the sage grouse bird and and provide money for police anti-racism training.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said he talked with Pelosi Monday about that bill and told her “there are a lot of things in your bill that we are not going to take.”

Shelby also said, “this week is pivotal.”

Speaking about the Covid-19 relief proposal, McConnell said it’s getting “down to the wire.“

Schumer blamed his GOP counterpart for stalling the compromise effort. He and Pelosi publicly endorsed the $908 billion plan last Wednesday, after having made a new pitch to McConnell two days before. They previously sought a $2.4 trillion bill.

“We want the leader to sit down and negotiate so we can come up with a bipartisan proposal that can pass the House and the Senate,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. He highlighted that some economists are warning of a double-dip recession if Congress fails to pass a deal.

Members of the bipartisan team working on a compromise retained their hope that success is still possible.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said she was “hopeful.” She concluded, “It depends on what Mitch McConnell wants to do.”

Republican Senator Mitt Romney worried about an increased number of negotiators potentially bogging things down. But he said “we haven’t been told that there’s a drop dead date. We’re going to keep working until it’s done.”

“A lot of text has been written,” said GOP Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. The group is “still working through it.”

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