Odds shrink for a coronavirus relief deal
The prospect of Congress and the White House providing much needed coronavirus relief to millions of Americans is getting worse by the day, despite leaders in both parties saying they’re open to a deal.
The Senate is set to vote Thursday on the GOP’s narrow relief proposal that even Republicans acknowledge will not pass. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s lead negotiator, is tamping down expectations that an agreement can be reached.
Mnuchin instead said Wednesday that his main focus is making sure Congress passes a stopgap measure to keep federal agencies open beyond Sept. 30. As for a coronavirus relief package, Mnuchin said he was unsure if a compromise is possible.
Mnuchin told reporters he spoke with Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on Tuesday about a continuing resolution that would fund the government until mid-December after having discussed it with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week. Shelby has been holding talks to “get a clean CR and things are moving forward productively,” Mnuchin said. “So that’s really the focus at the moment.”
“I don’t know,” Mnuchin added when asked about a new stimulus package. “We’ll see. I hope there is. It’s important to a lot of people out there.”
The stalled talks come as coronavirus cases continue to grow, with roughly 190,000 Americans dead. The U.S. economy has shown some signs of improvement, yet unemployment remains high with millions of Americans out of work.
The partisan blame game continued Wednesday, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) trading jabs on the Senate floor.
“The race for treatments and vaccines has gone without the additional funding that Republicans wanted to deliver,” McConnell said. “Families have gone without the economic relief that Republicans wanted to put in their pockets. And Washington Democrats have just kept trying to run out the clock until November.”
Schumer meanwhile accused Republicans of only seeking political cover with Thursday’s vote on their coronavirus relief plan.
“It is impossible to look at this GOP proposal and not wonder: do our Republican friends see the damage in America?” Schumer asked. “Are they still trying to fool the American people by calling a harshly partisan proposal bipartisan?”
Senate Republicans released their new coronavirus relief proposal Tuesday, after weeks of discussion during the August recess. The bill would provide $ 300 in boosted federal weekly unemployment benefits through the end of December, another round of money for the small business Paycheck Protection Program and liability protections for schools, businesses and health care providers, a top priority for McConnell. It also includes $ 15 billion in grants for childcare and a two-year tax credit for donations to scholarships and grants.
Senate Republicans struggled to coalesce around a $ 1 trillion proposal in July, but the latest, roughly $ 500 billion proposal is looking increasingly likely to get support from nearly all in the GOP caucus.
Schumer and Pelosi have derided the GOP proposal — referred to as a “skinny” bill on Capitol Hill — as an “emaciated” plan that does not provide nearly enough relief, and negotiations remain at an impasse over the relief bill’s price tag.
Democrats initially pushed for the nearly $ 3.5 trillion HEROES Act which passed the House in May and provided for a more generous extension of federal unemployment benefits, hundreds of billions of dollars to ailing states and cities and another round of stimulus checks to individuals.
In recent weeks, Democrats have lowered their offer to $ 2.2 trillion. They blame the White House for being unwilling to meet them halfway.
“This is way beyond partisanship what’s happening in our country right now,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “I support getting a package done and as quickly as possible, but I don’t see any serious effort on Sen. McConnell’s part right now to do that.”
The GOP proposal is not expected to get much if any support from Democrats. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said he was undecided while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said substantial changes would be needed to win him over.
“There needs to be an awful lot of adjustments to that bill and I’m not going to vote to get on it unless we have a chance to fix it,” Manchin said.
With the likelihood of a relief package fading unless there’s a dramatic reversal — and that would mean one side or the other caves — avoiding a government shutdown is the only other big legislative item still outstanding before Election Day.
Shelby and McConnell both expressed support for a “clean” continuing resolution that lasts until mid-December. That would give lawmakers time to deal with the election fallout, any leadership races, and then assemble an omnibus funding package to cover 2021 spending.
McConnell told reporters Wednesday that he backs a spending stopgap that would last until mid-December.
“Yeah, that’s something I support,” McConnell said.
“We’re trying to do a clean CR maybe to December,” Shelby added. “What we gotta do is define ‘clean.’ Cleaner to us is always clean. To Democrats, they may want to add on stuff.”
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