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‘Skinny’ coronavirus relief bill blocked in Senate

Republicans united behind the slimmed-down package, however, giving GOP negotiators a lift in talks with Democratic leaders

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference after the Senate Republican luncheon in the Hart Building on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference after the Senate Republican luncheon in the Hart Building on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate rejected Republicans’ latest coronavirus relief proposal Thursday, though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have strengthened their hand in bipartisan negotiations with a display of GOP unity.

The vote to end debate on the roughly $650 billion package was 52-47, falling short of the necessary 60 votes. But McConnell was able to keep all but one of his 53-member conference on board, an important signal to Democratic leaders and White House officials who remain mired in a stalemate.

Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the sole GOP “no” vote.

Leaders of both parties telegraphed for days that as drafted, the Senate GOP’s “skinny” bill wouldn’t pass. But after Republicans faced the loss of perhaps 20 votes on their own side for a $1.1 trillion package of bills McConnell unveiled in late July, Democrats repeatedly used the “GOP in disarray” talking point to take a hard line in the negotiations.

The vote also gives vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents something to point to on the campaign trail after the chamber recesses next month until after Election Day, if the parties can’t work out a broader deal before then.

Whether Senate Republicans would unify around the bill wasn’t clear even as the vote neared on Thursday. “We’ll find out when the roll is called,” McConnell told reporters peppering him about whether he could muster a simple majority.

[Senate GOP seeks unity ahead of Thursday vote on ‘skinny’ coronavirus relief bill]

In opening remarks before the vote, McConnell cast his move to bring up the package as a test for Democrats.

“Should we at least vote to move forward and have this debate out in the open, or do our Democratic colleagues prefer to hide behind closed doors and refuse to help families before the election?” he asked. Americans are wondering, McConnell said, if “Washington Democrats really care more about hurting President [Donald] Trump than helping them through this crisis.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in his rebuttal reiterated his attack on the bill as “emaciated.” It lacks, among other things, housing assistance, nutrition assistance, aid to state and local governments and funding to build out broadband connections that Democrats insist on, he said.

“It is one of the most cynical moves I’ve seen, a fairly transparent attempt to show that the Republicans are doing something, when in fact they want to do nothing,” Schumer said.

House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion package in May, but have since offered to meet the Senate GOP roughly halfway at $2.2 trillion.

Top White House officials have hinted they might be willing to go as high as $1.5 trillion. The Senate vote Thursday, in which Republicans rallied around a bill with a net cost of around $300 billion after offsets, could solidify GOP opposition to anything more than what the Trump administration is willing to offer.

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Jobless aid, small business loans

Key features of the smaller GOP bill include a $300 boost in weekly unemployment insurance benefits through Dec. 27, and a revamped Paycheck Protection Program offering a “second draw” of loans for hard hit businesses.

Other provisions of the Senate GOP relief bill include:

  • A revamped Paycheck Protection Program taking back unspent Small Business Administration funds and offering “second draw” loans, capped at $2 million each, to firms with 300 or fewer workers that have seen revenue drop at least 35 percent year-over-year. The new program is estimated to cost nearly $258 billion, but the net cost drops to about $112 billion after rescinding unspent SBA funds.
  • $105 billion for K-12 schools and colleges and universities, along with the new scholarship programs intended to promote school choice. There’s also $15 billion to help working parents find accessible child care options.
  • $20 billion for farmers and ranchers who’ve been hurt by pandemic-induced losses, and $500 million for fishing and seafood industries.
  • $31 billion for development and distribution of vaccines, drugs and other medical supplies, and $16 billion for testing and contact tracing.
  • $10 billion worth of loan forgiveness for the U.S. Postal Service if the agency falls below certain cash thresholds.
  • Liability protections for businesses, schools and health care providers.
  • An expanded charitable deduction for 2020 contributions made by taxpayers who claim the standard deduction and aren’t eligible to claim charitable deductions.

Senate GOP leaders expressed optimism about the vote after a Wednesday caucus lunch. The universe of defectors was expected to be small: Paul quickly indicated he was uninterested in adding any more to the national debt and would not support the bill.

Josh Hawley, R-Mo., earlier suggested his vote would hinge on whether his proposal to add tax credits for home schooling expenses would be included. But he ultimately backed the bill, which contains some aid for working parents in the form of more flexible uses for 529 savings accounts and new scholarship programs to give parents alternatives to closed public schools.

Doug Jones, D-Ala., said he was undecided on Wednesday. but that his legislative preference was usually for “something rather than nothing.” Jones, considered the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection, ultimately voted against cloture.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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