After days of delays, Congressional Republicans rolled out their proposal for a fifth wave of pandemic relief aid on Monday, setting the stage for a showdown with Democrats, who say the two sides remain far apart.
The plan, which was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., focuses on new funding for schools, a new round of payments to Americans and allows for some additional wage replacement for unemployed workers.
It also includes a marque issue for Republicans in this stimulus bill: new legal protections against lawsuits for businesses related to the pandemic.
"We have produced a tailored and targeted draft that will cut right to the heart of three distinct crisis facing our country: getting kids back in school, getting workers back to work and winning the healthcare fight against the virus," McConnell, R-Ky., said from the Senate floor.
McConnell said the measure would be called the "HEALS Act," or the Help, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act. Key committee chairs drafted the various components of the bill and introduced them later Monday in separate speeches on the Senate floor.
McConnell said the bill would include another round of direct payments to Americans, in the same amount that was in the previous CARES Act that Congress passed in March — $1,200 for individuals up to an income cap, with more for families with children.
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McConnell also said there would be a supplement to unemployment benefits. However, he made clear he did not support extending the current $600 per week now in effect, saying of the program: "We have to do it in a way that does not slow down reopening."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley released details showing that the weekly supplemental payment would fall to $200 per week through September, and starting in October it would be replaced with an amount that would replace 70% of lost wages through a formula created by states. Those states unable to implement a new system could apply for a waiver and continue a fixed amount for up to two months.
Republicans and Democrats have feuded over how much unemployment support should replace someone's lost wages — at, below, or more than what a worker was being paid before the economic disruption wrought by the pandemic.
In addition, McConnell indicated there would be money for schools, for testing, for additional loans to small businesses, and legal protections for health care workers and businesses. He said the bill would also include a plan to manufacture personal protective equipment in the U.S., to avoid the need to acquire a stockpile from China.
McConnell didn't immediately unveil the costs of the bill, but it has been estimated to cost around $1 trillion.
Tough negotiations expected
The move sets in motion difficult negotiations ahead for Republicans and Democrats, with the parties diverging dramatically for this new effort in COVID-19 relief.
Earlier this year, Congress approved four rounds of relief aid in a matter of weeks, with talks between White House officials and Democrats cementing deals totaling about $3 trillion in aid.
Now, Democrats say Republicans should instead start with their proposal, known as the HEROES Act, approved by House Democrats more than two months ago.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to McConnell with a speech of his own that faulted Republicans' inability to settle their own positions, which he said not only wasted time but resulted in a proposal that doesn't provide enough help. He called it "weak tea" and "too little, too late."
Schumer mocked what he called Republicans' fears about "big money donors" who object to helping workers as opposed to favored big industries.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, later called the unemployment assistance proposal "a punch in the gut and a slap in the face" to jobless Americans.
The bill includes money to design and build a new Washington, D.C. headquarters for the FBI — a project that has been debated for years and something President Trump said last week was needed because the existing building, located across the street from one of his family's hotels, is in disrepair.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a House Republican until a few months ago, are expected to meet with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her office on Monday evening.
Pelosi earlier on Monday had extended the invitation to her office within 30 minutes of Republicans rolling out their proposal.
"If Republicans care about working families, this won't take long. Time is running out. Congress cannot go home without an agreement," Pelosi said in a statement.
Congress is slated to begin its recess Aug. 7, leaving negotiators a mere two weeks to wrap up negotiations and potentially send a bill to Trump's desk.
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