Coronavirus Relief Bill Talks Snagged Over Testing, Liability, Other Issues

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed doubts Wednesday about a COVID-19 aid package becoming law before the Nov. 3 elections.

After a morning phone call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mnuchin said the myriad disputes over funding and policy questions that have yet to be resolved make an imminent agreement on a long-stalled relief package unlikely.

“I’d say at this point getting something done before the election and executing on that would be difficult, just given where we are in the level of details,” Mnuchin said at a Milken Institute conference. “But we are going to try to continue to work through these issues.”

He again stressed the need for liability protection from pandemic-related lawsuits for small businesses and schools that reopen. Democrats have stressed the need to protect workers who risk their health by returning to job sites.

“Having that immunity from prosecution or for taking responsibility, if that’s a deal breaker for them, not having it in there, I think that it should be a deal breaker for us to leave it in there,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said on a press call Wednesday. “We have to make sure that there is some ability for safety of workers. And right now, that’s not where they are.”

Mnuchin also suggested for the first time that aid to state and local governments — a top priority for Democrats — might need to be accompanied by new financial control boards set up by states to guard against improper spending. Republicans have resisted more state and local aid, saying they didn’t want to bail out states that were poorly managed even before the pandemic hit.

“There may be the need for financial control boards, which would be set by the states,” Mnuchin said. “We want to make sure that the finances are proper and in order, but we also want to make sure that policemen, firemen, first-responders don’t get laid off. That would have a cost to the federal government … in unemployment, but also a cost to the economy, so that’s something we’re very focused on.”

President Donald Trump echoed that theme at a White House economic forum Wednesday. “I’d like to see the Democrats loosen up a little bit,” he said. “You know, all they want to do is bail out their badly run cities and states.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were pressing the Trump administration for more robust funding and more detailed planning on a COVID-19 testing strategy.

“One major area of disagreement continues to be that the White House lacks an understanding of the need for a national strategic testing plan,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted after the hour-long phone call between the speaker and Mnuchin. He said the two negotiators would speak again on Thursday.

Pelosi has pushed for $75 billion in new money for testing.  In a letter to her caucus over the weekend, she said the latest White House proposal “seems to be about $45 billion in new money” that “is not spent strategically.”

Pelosi also said funding to states would be delayed unless they enter into compacts that require legislative action by each participating state. Schakowsky said states would need to sign contracts and pass a bill to qualify for the federal funding.

“We are still seeing the president of the United States … working against getting anything better, and now they set up a program for the states that’s really, totally unworkable,” she said. “Why in the world? It’s just plain cruelty and stupidity.”

With no sign of an imminent deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced plans Tuesday to take up a Republican-drafted aid package of roughly $500 billion when the Senate reconvenes next week. That measure, which could be similar to a GOP bill offered in the Senate last month, is a far cry from the $2.2 trillion package sought by House Democrats.


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