Bipartisan negotiators on a $908 billion pandemic relief package are planning to unveil more details of their proposal Dec. 7, aiming to settle on language that can satisfy enough Republicans and Democrats to secure passage of one final tranche of COVID-19 aid before Congress breaks for the year.
The outline of the plan spurred a flurry of optimism last week when it won the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer and a number of Republican senators as a basis for fresh talks after a half-year of stalemate.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), part of the group behind the proposal, said Dec. 6 he was confident President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “will come on board” with the plan, which he emphasized was a short-term boost for a nation still reeling from the pandemic.
“This is not a stimulus bill, it’s a relief bill,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “And it’s something for the next three to four months to help those in greatest need.”
Still, complaints grew as lawmakers expressed disappointment at missing elements and items that they wanted excluded.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he’d oppose the compromise because it lacked $1,200 individual stimulus checks, something that President-elect Joe Biden also wanted included. McConnell and other Republicans are skeptical about the scale of $160 billion in aid assigned to states, which GOP members have criticized as an improper bailout.
“We’re trying to narrow the scope, get the relief out there flowing” to the priority areas both sides can agree on, said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who is co-head of the bipartisan Problem Solvers group that is also backing the package. “We were trying to get to that sweet spot, that common ground.”
Payments to individuals would blow out the price tag, Reed said. While House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the $908 billion figure was the “lowest we should go to,” it’s still well above the roughly $500 billion that Senate Republicans had favored in the fall. Pelosi had previously pushed for a $2.4 trillion package.
“It’s essential we provide immediate relief for working families and businesses now,” Biden said in a Dec. 4 news conference. But “any package passed in the lame duck session is not going to be enough overall,” with another package needed in January.
Congressional leaders in both parties say the pandemic relief bill will be attached to an omnibus government-funding bill that covers appropriations into 2021. A stopgap measure that prevents a government shutdown runs out on Dec. 11, and lawmakers are considering another one that would last a week, giving Congress until Dec. 18 to wrap up both appropriations and the coronavirus assistance package.
Trump has largely disengaged from the stimulus talks after his election loss, leaving it up to Congress to take the initiative. Record numbers of deaths of Americans from COVID-19, along with increasing evidence that the economic rebound is faltering, have increased pressure on lawmakers to act.
Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, said last month that with the Federal Reserve — which she previously led — already “doing about all they can do” with monetary policy, it was vital for fiscal stimulus to kick in.
Both Democrats and Republicans pointed to a weaker-than-expected November jobs gain as evidence that relief spending is becoming urgent. The 245,000 gain left employment 9.8 million below pre-pandemic levels, and the ranks of long-term unemployed climbed to the highest since 2013.
“One hopes that it also changes the politics somewhat, to move people toward getting over the finish line” on stimulus, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign who’s now president of the American Action Forum, a center-right policy organization, referring to the November jobs report. “That hasn’t happened yet but I think these data should encourage lawmakers to get a deal.”
The scale of aid to states and coronavirus-related liability protections for businesses — which Republicans want but Democrats have opposed — are the two most sensitive areas, said Reed, the Republican negotiator.
The 2021 spending legislation also faces several obstacles to completion, including Trump’s demand for border-wall financing and a dispute over whether $12.5 billion in Veterans Affairs health funding should be allowed as an emergency above the budget cap.
The giant omnibus was also plagued in recent days by as many as 300 minor policy disputes, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby. Among these have been federal protections for the sage grouse, policy on biomass energy and funding for police antiracism training.
Because of the lingering disputes, Congress is on track to pass a one-week stopgap bill this week to prevent a U.S. government shutdown Dec. 12.
Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing: