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Senate delays vote as rifts deepen on coronavirus aid

Procedural vote on measure moved to 6 p.m. Sunday

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is seen in the Senate subway on March 17, 2020. McConnell announced the Senate would move a procedural vote on the third coronavirus aid package to later Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is seen in the Senate subway on March 17, 2020. McConnell announced the Senate would move a procedural vote on the third coronavirus aid package to later Sunday. (CQ Roll Call)

Deepening rifts over a massive economic stimulus package forced Senate leaders to delay a planned procedural vote by three hours, until 6 p.m. Sunday.

While negotiations continued and hope for a bipartisan deal remained, Democrats were frustrated that Republican leaders were rushing on a measure that they said didn’t do enough to help workers and was too generous toward corporate interests.

“People are very unhappy about what the Republicans have put forward,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “They have not given us details, but the overall view is that they want to create a slush fund for giant corporations, no help for employees, and no help for the hospitals.”

Republicans insisted they had bipartisan support for a robust relief package (HR 748) offering one-time cash payments to families, loans to small businesses and an expanded social safety net.

“What we have is a compromise product which contains ideas, contributions and priorities on both sides and which could become law as soon as tomorrow,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor. “In other words, it’s just about time to take yes for an answer.”

But after encountering rising Democratic blowback, McConnell agreed to delay the vote at the request of Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “The talks are continuing and Sen. Schumer asked for a couple of hours and I thought it was a reasonable request,” McConnell said. 

Democrats said more time is needed to resolve a host of outstanding disputes. They listed a “corporate slush fund” that lacked sufficient oversight, inadequate funding of hospitals and food aid and insufficient benefits for displaced workers, among other things.

“The legislation had many, many problems,” Schumer told reporters after the vote was delayed. “At the top of the list, it included a large corporate bailout provision with no protections for workers and virtually no oversight.” He said the initial GOP proposal “had no Democrats as part of it so when McConnell called it bipartisan none of our caucus was very happy.”

He said staff of both parties would now work together to resolve outstanding issues. “And I hope that we can come up with a truly bipartisan agreement — that means with Democrats and Republicans — before 6 p.m.,” Schumer said. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., accused Republicans of backtracking on earlier commitments some in their caucus had made: “So what we really need to do is get everybody around the table. And that should include the House.”

But in another potential setback for speedy action, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House would offer its own legislative package even as the Senate works to complete its bill.

“We’re so far apart,” Pelosi said after leaving a meeting of top congressional leaders around mid-day. ”We’ll be introducing our own bill and hopefully it will be compatible with what they discussed on the Senate side.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s point man for the talks, had offered an optimistic assessment in an earlier television interview.

“I think we have a fundamental understanding and we look forward to wrapping it up today,” Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” after several days of intensive negotiations at the Capitol.

Propping up the economy

The package is designed to prop up the economy for the next 10 to 12 weeks as businesses shutter and workers lose jobs in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Mnuchin said. But if the stimulus measure, which officials said could cost as much as $2 trillion, proves insufficient and the virus hasn’t abated, Mnuchin left open the possibility of another round of relief.

“If this lasts longer, we’ll come back again,” he said.

As outlined by Mnuchin, the package includes these key elements:

  • Small-business retention loans that would give employers two weeks of cash flow coverage to keep workers on the payroll. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Saturday the aid would sustain businesses for six or seven weeks.
  • A one-time cash payment to families, with an average check of about $3,000 for a family of four.
  • Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits for those who lose jobs as a result of the coronavirus.
  • A “broad-based lending program” through the Federal Reserve that would leverage up to $4 trillion in liquidity to help businesses big and small “get through the next 90 to 120 days as we win this war.”
  • New money for hospitals and other medical facilities that could amount to about $110 billion. 

But there were still several areas of disagreement as of Sunday morning.

GOP negotiators included language in the bill that said companies needed to retain employees “to the extent possible” — a move Democrats believe will allow corporations to lay off workers and still keep economic assistance funding from the government, according to a person familiar with the bill text.

The legislation includes a two-year limit on executive raises at companies that accept federal money and provides loans instead of grants to airlines — both of which were concerns Sunday morning.

The current draft doesn’t have as much funding for hospitals as Democrats feel is needed, according to a person familiar with the bill.

Democrats are also pushing for the final bill to strengthen restrictions on when and how companies can buy back stock. As of now, the Treasury secretary can waive buyback restrictions, according to a person familiar with the bill.

While some lawmakers have questioned the effectiveness of a one-time cash payment, Mnuchin said it would provide a needed “bridge” for struggling families that would come on top of expanded unemployment insurance and business loans. “I think we’re injecting a lot of liquidity into the system,” he said.

Student loan sticking point

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Channel that one of the sticking points is that “Democrats are trying to reduce student loans by $10,000.”

The initial GOP package called for some financial relief to college students hit by the coronavirus by allowing the Education secretary to defer student loan payments for three months without any penalty to the student, and for an additional three months if the secretary deems it necessary.

Democrats put forward a counterproposal that would direct the Department of Education to make monthly federal student loan payments for borrowers until the national emergency ends. Their plan called for canceling at least $10,000 of debt for federal student borrowers.

“What the hell has that got to do with a virus? I’m sure everybody could use more money, but I don’t want to give money to people that have a paycheck. I want to give money to people who have lost their job,” Graham said Sunday.

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