A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday unveiled its $908 billion coronavirus relief package as Congress faces a time crunch to pass more aid.
The proposal is split into two parts: One $748 billion piece includes another round of Paycheck Protection Program assistance for small businesses, an unemployment benefit, and more money for schools, vaccine distribution and other widely agreed-upon items.
The second $160 billion piece ties together the two most controversial elements of the coronavirus negotiations: more money for state and local governments and protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“I think we’ve had a Christmas miracle occur in Washington,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “These bills are not only bipartisan products; they are bicameral as well. My hope is that our hard work will spur our leadership on both sides.”
The text of the two bills comes after the group announced two weeks ago that it had reached an agreement on a framework for a $908 billion proposal.
But the group, after announcing the framework, still had daily closed-door and Zoom meetings as it has tried to work out what to do about more money for states and liability protections. The first is a top priority for Democrats, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has long pointed to legal protections as his “red line.”
Splitting off the two issues could make it easier to convince congressional leaders to take up a smaller coronavirus deal and either pass it or add it to a must-pass government funding deal. Appropriators are on the cusp of agreeing to a mammoth omnibus bill, which is expected to be the vehicle for any year-end coronavirus relief.
“Now it’s up to the leadership to take it and make this happen in a timely basis,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
But whether congressional leadership will take up the bipartisan bill remains unclear.
Leadership and top appropriators were discussing dropping parts of coronavirus aid into the omnibus.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, called the bipartisan bills “good stuff” but said any coronavirus relief was likely going to need to be agreed upon by leadership.
“My understanding is that they are looking at what the bipartisan group has come up with … and a lot of it is good stuff for potential inclusion in the year-end spending bill,” Cornyn said. “I think it’s having a … positive influence on what will be ultimately included.”
Cornyn added that he thought everything but the “truly controversial” items — state and local funding and liability protections — could get added into the spending bill.
McConnell spoke from the Senate floor on Monday about the need for more coronavirus relief. He also has opened the door to dropping liability protections and state and local aid.
“The next several days are going to bring about one of two outcomes. Either 100 Senators will be here shaking our heads, slinging blame and offering excuses about why we still have not been able to make a law … or we will break for the holidays having sent another huge dose of relief out the door for the people who need it,” McConnell said.
But the GOP leader did not mention the bipartisan group’s proposal either during his speech or respond to questions about it as he walked to the Senate floor.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that he would review their bills and that Democrats are “100 percent committed” to getting more relief signed into law.
Democratic leaders on Monday didn’t rule out dropping their demand for more state and local government, which draws fierce pushback from some Republicans.
“We are in negotiations,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said when asked if it was a red line, adding that Democrats “very much” support providing more help for state and local governments.
Schumer, asked about it as he was walking to his office, said, “We’ll see what the Gang of Eight puts together. We believe state and local is the right thing to do.”
The group is also facing pushback from both sides of the aisle because the proposal doesn’t include another round of direct payments.
Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are demanding a vote on their proposal to provide a second $1,200 check and have signaled that they view either a government funding bill or a separate coronavirus deal as leverage.
“Congress cannot go home for the Christmas holidays until we pass legislation which provides a $1,200 direct payment to working class adults, $2,400 for couples, and a $500 payment to their children,” Sanders said in a statement. “This is what Democrats and Republicans did unanimously in March through the CARES Act. This is what we have to do today.”