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Senate Republicans, White House near agreement on coronavirus relief package

GOP senators to break package up into several pieces; bipartisan agreement still nowhere in sight

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made another aid bill a priority in the coming weeks, but the details are still in question.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made another aid bill a priority in the coming weeks, but the details are still in question. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans and the Trump administration expect to unveil their COVID-19 relief plan Thursday after reaching agreement on key pieces late Wednesday.

That package will no longer be one bill but a series of bills addressing the ongoing health care and economic crisis, according to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “I think what the leader has decided he wants to do is to have a handful of bills now instead of just one bill,” he said. “The goal is tomorrow to get all of those bills out there.”

He didn’t know whether the bills would eventually be packaged together for floor consideration. “I’m not sure how this moves toward conclusion, whether the Senate will be voting on it individually or this becomes a negotiating position,” Blunt said.

Blunt, who oversees annual health care and education appropriations, met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to iron out details late Wednesday.

Shelby said the group reached a “fundamental agreement” on the appropriations portion, though there’s still a “few little things that our staff is working on.”

Mnuchin said Republicans had agreed to another round of direct checks to Americans but declined to give specifics. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants those checks to be directed toward lower-income Americans earning less than $40,000 annually. The previous round of $1,200 direct tax rebates that Congress approved in March began to phase out at $75,000.

The legislation will include $70 billion for elementary and secondary education with half of that figure going to every school on a per capita basis and the remaining $35 billion going to schools that will open in some capacity for in-person instruction, according to Blunt.

“We’ll come up with language that allows the governors to determine what that means and language that also is clear to school districts and school boards for what they would have to do to be considered in a back-to-school environment,” Blunt said.

Another $30 billion would be appropriated for higher education, with no conditions placed on colleges and universities based on whether they plan to reopen this fall. And $5 billion would be flexible funds that could be used, for example, for private school vouchers.

Blunt also said the bill would set aside a total of $25 billion for virus testing, including $9 billion in earlier funding that hasn’t yet been spent.

Unemployment insurance

Meadows wouldn’t say if the group reached agreement on a way to avoid millions of Americans losing the entire $600 weekly unemployment insurance increase that’s set to expire at the end of July.

He did say that he’s unlikely to support a temporary extension, which had been a topic of discussion earlier in the day as a fallback in case lawmakers couldn’t reach a broader deal before leaving for August recess.

“Any short-term extensions would defy the history of Congress, which would indicate that it would just be met with another short-term extension,” Meadows said.

House Democrats’ bill, which that chamber passed in May, would extend the $600 extra weekly benefit through next January. Republicans are basically united against extending that higher level. But several GOP lawmakers said Wednesday they want to avoid millions of Americans losing the entire increase above state benefits that Congress approved in March.

One possibility floated was a temporary extension, perhaps at a lesser amount, while states are given time to ramp up a new pandemic unemployment relief system that would calculate benefits for individuals that don’t exceed what they were earning previously.

“I think it would be probably smart for us to allow the states to come up with a system that’s fair and works better,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “And that would probably be a percentage of the state benefit. But it’s going to take a couple months for states to get up to speed on that. Probably a two-month period.”

According to an analysis by House Ways and Means Committee Democrats, the average nationwide loss in weekly benefits if the current expanded unemployment insurance program lapses will be 64 percent. In states that paid less to begin with, which are more typically GOP-leaning, the average loss will be greater than in states that paid higher benefits, like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Hawaii.

The benefit cut will actually kick in next week in most states, since they pay unemployment insurance for weeks ending on Saturday, not Friday, which is when July 31 falls this year.

Portman said he’d prefer to wrap up negotiations and votes on the next aid package before the end of next week. If that cannot happen, however, he said Congress must address unemployment benefits. “We don’t want to have a cliff,” Portman said.

Not all Republicans are supportive, citing ongoing frustration that the increase to unemployment benefits led some Americans to earn more while out of work than if they had returned to the workforce in the middle of the pandemic.

“I’m not in favor of any premium extension for unemployment,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. “What I’d prefer is if you want to give a few bucks to people, put it in a direct payment. But right now, we have provided an incentive not to go back to work, which is what that’s been.”

Meadows declined to say whether the proposal will include a payroll tax holiday, which is a top priority for President Donald Trump but faces deep skepticism among Capitol Hill Republicans.

Eviction moratorium

Republicans also face pressure to do more to alleviate the financial strain on renters and homeowners who face evictions and foreclosures due to the pandemic.

The administration has extended a moratorium enacted in the March relief package on evictions from federally backed housing, estimated to impact roughly 12.3 million households, set to expire this Friday, through Aug. 31. But that’s during a recess and there’s no guarantee of further extensions without codifying it in the statute.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., advocated Wednesday for provisions in a House-passed relief package as well as separate Senate legislation that provide $175 billion to help people pay their rent or mortgages, as well as instituting a yearlong ban on evictions and foreclosures.

“This bill protects renters from losing their housing, if they lose their job or have their hours cut during this crisis and can’t make their housing payment. The bill extends the federal eviction moratorium to last one year, instead of expiring this week,” Warren said at a news conference.

Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, told reporters the emerging GOP proposal would likely address the eviction issue in some form but declined to comment on specifics.

“I think the issue is important, and it does need to be dealt with in this legislation. The exact form of how it’s dealt with depends on a number of the other pieces of the bill that is being put together right now. So I can’t give you specifics,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the entire picture before we can describe exactly how any single piece will look.”

Internal GOP agreement on COVID-19 relief legislation would mark the beginning of serious talks with Democratic lawmakers.

Both chambers are scheduled to leave town by Aug. 7 until after Labor Day, putting additional pressure on leaders to reach an agreement that allows vulnerable members to get back to their regions to campaign.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said “it’s definitely feasible” the Senate leaves for August recess without passing a broader aid package. But he predicted McConnell may use scheduling threats to get obstinate senators to move.

“The leader is a very savvy manager of the calendar and a threat to come back during recess would be probably just the thing to get us to pass something before recess,” he said.

Lindsey McPherson, David Lerman, Jim Saksa and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.

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