Bipartisan group of lawmakers roll out $908 billion COVID relief plan

Washington — A bipartisan group of lawmakers rolled out a $908 billion coronavirus relief plan that would provide aid to state and local governments, small businesses and jobless Americans but not include another round of stimulus checks, as Democratic leaders and the White House remain deadlocked on another economic package and the clock on crucial relief programs set to expire at the end of the year ticks down.

The four-month proposal from the bicameral coalition would provide state and local governments facing a cash crunch due to declining revenues with $160 billion and small businesses with $288 billion, including through the Paycheck Protection Program. It also allocates $82 billion for education and $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution, as well as testing and contact tracing. 

For Americans out of work, the measure sets aside $180 billion for additional unemployment insurance. The bipartisan plan also provides short-term liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“We’re batting COVID-19 more fiercely now than we ever have before, we recognize that, and it’s inexcusable for us to leave town without an agreement,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said, adding it’s “not the time for political brinkmanship.”

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said it is “absolutely essential” for Congress to pass emergency relief, while Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia called it “stupidity on steroids” for lawmakers to leave town without approving an interim package.

The senators involved in the effort include Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Manchin and Warner; Independent Angus King of Maine; and Republicans Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Collins. The lawmakers are viewed as centrists within their respective parties.

Bipartisan members of the Senate and House announce coronavirus relief legislation framework at news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senator Mitt Romney speaks as bipartisan members of the Senate and House gather to announce a framework for fresh COVID-19 relief legislation at a news conference on Capitol Hill on December 1, 2020. KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

The House lawmakers involved are Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, and Republicans Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, Fred Upton of Michigan, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Tom Reed of New York.

It remains unclear whether the measure has the backing of House and Senate leaders, as well as the White House, though lawmakers said leaders of both parties were made aware of the discussions over the relief plan.

The framework from the Republican and Democratic lawmakers comes as the monthslong logjam in negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over another relief measure continues. While Pelosi, a Democrat from California, expressed optimism a deal would be reached before the November 3 election, talks collapsed as the two sides remained at odds over key aspects of a package.

In a letter to Mnuchin on October 29, Pelosi indicated there were six areas of disagreement between Democrats and the White House: funding for state and local governments; funding for schools; child care; the earned income and child tax credits; unemployment benefits; OSHA and liability. Mnuchin and Pelosi are expected to speak by phone about COVID-19 relief Tuesday afternoon for the first time since October, the treasury secretary told reporters on Capitol Hill.

While President Trump, who has been absent from negotiations, has urged lawmakers to “go big or go home,” he is opposed to federal aid to cash-strapped state and local governments and believes that providing such assistance would effectively be bailing out blue states.

Still, each chamber, controlled by opposing parties, have put forth their own respective measures. The House passed a $2.2 trillion bill, while Senate Republicans unveiled a $500 billion targeted package, which has twice been blocked by Senate Democrats who argued it did not do enough to address the economic fallout from the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden has been pleading with Congress to reach consensus on a relief bill as the nation experiences a surge in coronavirus infections and is bracing for a difficult winter. After a meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, last month, Mr. Biden, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they believe lawmakers should pass an emergency aid package in the lame-duck session before the new Congress is seated.

Both Schumer and McConnell reiterated the need for an economic package Monday, with the Democratic leader saying “both sides must give.” McConnell stressed there is “no reason — none — why we should not deliver another major pandemic relief package” before the end of the year.

Adding to the urgency for congressional action is the upcoming expiration of several programs that aimed to help Americans struggling financially because of the pandemic, including the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance, the nationwide eviction moratorium and federal student loan freeze. If Congress fails to act, 12 million Americans would lose their unemployment benefits.

Alan He contributed to this report.

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