Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hitting the brakes on emerging COVID-19 aid package from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, saying Republican senators won't support $160 billion in state and local funds as part of a potential trade-off in the deal.
McConnell's staff conveyed to top negotiators that the GOP leader sees no path to an agreement on a key aspect of the lawmakers' existing proposal — a slimmed-down version of the liability shield for companies and organizations facing potential COVID-19 lawsuits — in exchange for $160 billion in state and local funds that Democrats want.
A senior Democrat confirmed that McConnell's position was conveyed to negotiators and was granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. McConnell’s office did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
The hardened stance from McConnell, who does not appear to have the votes from Republicans for a far-reaching compromise, creates a new stalemate over the $900-billion-plus package, despite days of toiling by a bipartisan group of lawmakers toward a deal.
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It comes as President Donald Trump's top negotiator on COVID-19 financial aid took the opposite view. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reported headway Thursday on the package from the bipartisan senators' group.
“I think we’re making a lot of progress," Mnuchin said.
Deadlines, real and perceived, haven’t been sufficient to drive Washington’s factions to an agreement, despite the U.S. breaking a record-high 3,000 daily COVID fatalities, and hospitals straining at capacity from soaring caseloads nationwide.
A one-week stop-gap measure to prevent a federal shutdown appears to have sapped some urgency from the talks. The short-term government-wide funding bill, approved by the House on Wednesday, needs to clear the Senate before Friday at midnight to avert a partial closure.
The next deadline would be Dec. 18, but both House and Senate leaders say they won’t adjourn without passing an aid measure.
But many Republicans have long viewed the state and local aid as a bailout they would have trouble supporting, despite the pleas for funds coming from governors and mayors nationwide.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is sending lawmakers home while talks continue, said Congress would keep working up to or even after Christmas to get an agreement. The new Congress is being sworn in on Jan. 3.
“Now if we need more time then we take more time, but we have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it," Pelosi said. She also gave an upbeat assessment on the talks.
McConnell has proposed a five-year liability shield from virus lawsuits, retroactive to December 2019, but the bipartisan group was eyeing a scaled-back shield of six months to a year. Labor and civil rights groups oppose any shield, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.
Republicans say the right people to handle final negotiations are the four leaders of Congress and the Trump administration, with the focus on a proposal by McConnell, R-Ky., to eliminate a Democratic demand for $160 billion or so in assistance for state and local governments.
The Trump administration is back in the middle of the negotiations with a $916 billion plan. It would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.
The offer has the endorsement of the top House Republican and apparent backing from McConnell, who had previously favored a $519 billion GOP plan that has already failed twice. But Democrats immediately blasted the plan over the administration's refusal to back the partial restoration, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.
President-elect Joe Biden is pressing for as much pandemic relief as possible, though he's not directly involved in the talks. McConnell, like Pelosi, says Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. The pressure to deliver is intense; all sides say failure isn’t an option.
The bipartisan negotiating group — led by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others — is seeking to rally lawmakers behind the $908 billion framework that includes the $300-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and $160 billion for states and local governments.
It also includes a four-month extension of jobless benefits set to expire at the end of the month, $300 billion for “paycheck protection" subsidies for struggling businesses, funding for vaccines and testing, and a host of smaller items such as aid to transit systems, the U.S. Postal Service and health care providers.