Lawmakers restart pandemic relief effort but deal remains elusive

The newly introduced $908 billion bipartisan package marks the first significant movement since the election on dealing with skyrocketing caseloads, surging hospitalizations and a hobbled economy. And the legislation’s backers have been in touch with congressional leaders in both chambers of Congress and Mnuchin about their negotiations.

But the group’s members said they had not finalized the text of the legislation yet and conceded that they have no commitment for their proposal to hit the floors in either the House or Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the bill will be ready for lawmakers to consider “very soon.”

“We have not had assurances from them on that for a vote. But I think the American people will put the pressure” on congressional leaders, Manchin said.

Moreover, Trump is not engaged in the negotiations after losing his reelection campaign to President-elect Joe Biden. And Biden has been generally aligned with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on going big.

The bicameral, bipartisan compromise would provide $908 billion in aid and also shield businesses from coronavirus lawsuits for a few months to allow states to develop their own liability reforms. It falls between McConnell’s $500 billion proposal and Democratic legislation of about $2 trillion.

The proposal includes $160 billion in state and local aid, $180 billion in additional unemployment insurance and $288 billion for small businesses. It also has $82 billion for schools as well as $45 billion for transportation, according to a draft, and it includes money for health care.

“It’s simply unacceptable for us to not respond in this circumstance. Now, I happen to be a deficit hawk. I don’t like borrowing money, I don’t like spending money we don’t have. But the time to borrow money, maybe the only time to borrow money, is when there’s a crisis,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

The proposal was introduced on Tuesday morning by Manchin, Romney, and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Angus King (I-Maine) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), as well as House members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Separately, some other senators have held bipartisan discussions about a solution.

Pelosi and Mnuchin are scheduled to talk on the phone Tuesday afternoon, their first time speaking about the stalled stimulus negotiations since Oct. 26. Mnuchin’s staff initiated the call but senior members of both parties are already casting doubt on the idea that a major deal of any kind could come together in the next week before both chambers are scheduled to depart until the new year.

“I appreciate that there is some bipartisan support,” Mnuchin told reporters Tuesday of the Senate proposal but also downplayed his call with Pelosi. “I’m sure I will be talking a little bit about [coronavirus stimulus], but the primary purpose is on government funding.”

Congressional leaders have had little interaction between themselves or the White House on coronavirus talks in more than a month.

McConnell and Pelosi had an end-of-the-year housekeeping call weeks ago where pandemic assistance briefly came up. Similarly, McConnell and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer talked on the phone about the new Congress in recent days and briefly touched on coronavirus relief. But it has been weeks since any of the key negotiators have engaged in real discussions.

And even with bipartisan support and a burst of activity, the newest proposal is no lay-up. Though Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for the bill to come to the Senate floor, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) was noncommittal. Many Republicans dislike state and local aid that would flow to blue states.

“A number of my colleagues have talked about this being a victory for the American people. If we pass it, it’s a victory for the American people. This is step one. We have a lot of steps going forward,” said Shaheen.

Several congressional aides said the likeliest route to a new round of aid is through McConnell and Pelosi. Congress has not enacted a new significant round of aid since April.

McConnell and Schumer have both called for more coronavirus relief, but GOP senators said if there is an aid package it’s unlikely to be attached to the spending bill due by Dec. 11, though Congress could include a smaller portion of stimulus funding into the annual budget measure. That means it’s still uncertain whether Congress can actually clinch a new law before the end of the lame duck.

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