Momentum grows on Capitol Hill for economic relief package as bipartisan group releases two bills

Source: By Jeff Stein, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Negotiators adjusted their strategy after they couldn’t secure unanimous support for one $908 billion bill

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), center, speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a coronavirus relief bill Dec. 1.

The bipartisan group unveiled one $748 billion package that includes new unemployment benefits, small business aid and other programs that received broad bipartisan support. The second bill includes the two provisions most divisive among lawmakers — liability protections for firms and roughly $160 billion in aid for state and local governments — with the expectation that both could be excluded from a final deal to secure passage of the most popular provisions. This second bill could end up falling out of the final deal if lawmakers don’t rally around it amid broad opposition among Democrats to approving the liability shield.

The progress in the bipartisan group’s work comes as congressional leaders indicated momentum for quickly approving some sort of economic relief package before lawmakers leave for Christmas recess. Two senior Democrats appeared open to advancing legislation that lacked state and local funding, a possible concession that could pave the way for an agreement. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sounded hopeful and emphasized potential cooperation in a speech on the Senate floor.

The effort to break the months-long legislative logjam over economic aid has been spearheaded by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), among other centrist lawmakers who appeared together at a news conference Monday. It reflects a shift in strategy, as rank-and-file members are trying to spearhead the initiative instead of deferring to congressional leaders.

The first bipartisan bill centers on providing hundreds of billions in aid in unemployment benefits and a second round of small business relief, while also devoting tens of billions to other needs such as education, transit agencies, hunger and vaccine distribution.

“Bipartisanship and compromise is alive and well in Washington,” Manchin said at the news conference. “We’ve proven that.”

Collins emphasized that the package should form the “basis” for leaders in the House, Senate and White House. She called the group’s legislation a “Christmas miracle” after months of partisan gridlock.

The two bills show how far the bipartisan group of negotiators took the process but also the limits of their effort, as they weren’t able to completely solve some of the most complex problems. Sens. Murkowski and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) touted the need for state and local aid to make its way into a final package, but it’s unclear if that element will survive the final stages of negotiations.

Negotiators are hoping that by advancing both of these measures, they will draw Democratic and Republican leaders into talks to speed the process along and ultimately lead to a final package. That effort has shown signs of success. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discussed a relief bill with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday, and they were expected to talk again Monday.

McConnell also sounded upbeat rather than narrowly denouncing his opponents, saying on the Senate floor: “The Republican side wants to make law, to agree where we can and help people who need it. I hope and believe that my Democratic colleagues feel the same way.”

Lawmakers also made progress over the weekend on the government funding bills. Senior congressional leadership has aimed to include the stimulus legislation with the must-pass legislation to fund the government, but that effort has also not been finalized. Appropriators are now optimistic that a compromise deal could be hammered out by as early as Monday, according to aides familiar with the deliberations. Congress has until Friday to pass spending legislation, or the government would shut down Saturday.

The bipartisan stimulus legislation includes 16 weeks of unemployment benefits at $300 per week for jobless Americans, as well as 16-week extensions in base unemployment benefits and the unemployment program for gig workers and independent contractors. The plan also devotes $300 billion in small-business relief, including a second round of Paycheck Protection Program funding, according to a summary of the document provided by a congressional aide.

Additionally, the legislation includes $82 billion for schools; $13 billion in emergency food assistance; $25 billion in rental assistance; $35 billion for health-care providers; and $13 billion for farmers, ranchers, growers and fisheries; among other measures.

The bill will also have an extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, at which point lawmakers hope the $25 billion in rental assistance would alleviate pressure on renters. Republicans resisted a longer extension of the moratorium, people familiar with the talks said. A one-month extension of the moratorium would ensure it covers renters until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, at which point he could do so unilaterally, said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit group.

“I really am optimistic this morning — very optimistic,” said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, citing conversations with Hill aides. “Nobody wants to be the Grinch that stole Christmas this year. They’ll get it done this week; I feel very confident in that for a change.”

The bipartisan effort has so far left out another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, although the White House included a second stimulus check worth $600 in its proposal last week. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have also threatened to block a package that left out the stimulus checks.

“It astounds me how just a few months ago [in May] the Democratic House passed the Heroes bill — $3.4 trillion,” Sanders said in an interview Monday. “What kind of negotiating is that?”

Conservatives are also mounting some opposition to the deal. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote an op-ed for the National Review this weekend urging Republican lawmakers not to accept funding for state and local governments, which he called rewarding “Democrats’ fiscal management with more taxpayer money.” Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are among those expected among conservative activists to oppose the bill for increasing the amount of federal spending.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) appeared to push back against conservative opposition to the bill among fellow Republicans at the news conference, arguing, “The economy is not getting better in most of our states.”

Some lawmakers in the bipartisan group have suggested including another round of stimulus checks in the $740 billion proposal that excludes both the liability shield and state and local funding, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal deliberations. Republicans have sought to keep the price tag of the bill below $1 trillion, but if state aid is left out, lawmakers may have enough money available to include the checks. The bipartisan group has circulated various options for structuring the checks but have remained divided on the issue and failed to reach an agreement, aides said.

McConnell floated that negotiators leave out both the state and local aid provision and the liability shield, instead only voting on areas where both parties agree. Some Democratic leaders have balked at this pitch, citing potentially large budget shortfalls that could accelerate already stark layoffs among state and local governments.

But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the second highest-ranking Democrat in the House, suggested on Sunday that Democrats may be willing to support a deal leaving out the state and local aid component. On Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he supported the $748 billion package that leaves out state and local aid.

“While the fight continues over these issues, we must provide some emergency relief for the American people before we go home for the holidays. I support the $748 billion bipartisan package,” Durbin said.

Hopes of reaching a liability compromise that would be broadly satisfactory to both parties have dimmed despite furious work by members of the bipartisan group. Several proposals have been floated and discarded, including a Democratic proposal to create an indemnity fund to reimburse businesses who are sued over covid issues, but major sticking points remain. Among them: settling on a definition of “gross negligence” that would allow lawsuits to move forward and creating standards for moving state tort claims to federal courts and vice versa.

Lawmakers have little time to reach an agreement. About 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas if there is no extension in aid for the jobless. Somewhere between 2.4 million and 5 million American households are at risk of eviction in January alone if Congress fails to act, Syracuse University professor Gretchen Purser said in research released Monday. And the U.S. economy shows new signs of deteriorating, with last week’s job report the worst in months.

“You’ve got to give us a vote,” Durbin said in a plea to congressional leadership at the news conference. “We can’t go home for Christmas if we do not do this.”