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Another ‘skinny’ coronavirus relief bill on tap in Senate

New relief proposal would aid small businesses and others, but falls well short of Democrats' demands

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks through the Senate subway on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks through the Senate subway on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate will vote next week on a roughly $500 billion COVID-19 relief package that mirrors an earlier Republican proposal, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday.

The decision to push another “skinny” relief bill marked a new attempt to jump-start negotiations that have been stalled for months over the size and shape of the next round of economic aid for the pandemic.

A $1.8 trillion relief offer last week from the Trump administration landed with a thud on Capitol Hill, as House Democrats said it was too small and Senate Republicans said it was too big.

But there was little reason to think that the upcoming legislation pushed by McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, stands any real chance of becoming law. And the strategy of going narrow and “targeted,” as McConnell put it, appeared to contradict President Donald Trump’s own intentions.

“STIMULUS! Go big or go home!!!” the president tweeted, within minutes of McConnell’s announcement.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the mixed messages from Republicans promised to complicate prospects for a bipartisan compromise.

“It would sure be great if the president and Senator McConnell were speaking to one another and had a common approach,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday. “What I hear from Senator McConnell is once again, ‘Take a little piece and be satisfied.’ And what I hear from the president [is] just the opposite. Can the two of them sit down and agree? Wouldn’t that be a breakthrough?”

McConnell said his new package would provide “roughly $500 billion” in relief, including unemployment assistance, more money for schools and health care, and new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. FiscalNote, the parent company of CQ Roll Call, received a loan under the program.

The GOP measure will also contain liability protections so businesses, schools and health care providers that follow the appropriate health precautions can’t be sued if people get sick. That’s been a top demand of McConnell’s since discussions began on a new aid package over the summer.

“We will go to the floor again Monday with another effort to try to get an outcome even in the midst of this hotly contested election,” McConnell said during a campaign stop in Kentucky on Tuesday. “What I will put on the floor will basically be a bill that we tried to pass months ago and couldn’t get a single Democrat to support.”

Senate Republicans last month backed a smaller package with a net cost of $300 billion after offsetting more than half of the measure by rescinding unused PPP funds and appropriations to backstop Federal Reserve lending facilities. But it got no Democratic support and couldn’t get over the 60-vote threshold to end debate.

During a separate appearance in Kentucky on Tuesday, McConnell said another round of tax rebates would be included in the new GOP proposal, unlike the earlier skinny package. He said the measure will include “another round of checks for those who have been hit the hardest,” though he didn’t specify an income threshold.

The $2 trillion March aid package distributed checks and direct deposits of up to $1,200 per adult, and $500 per child, for single filers with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 and for married couples filing jointly earning up to $150,000. Above those figures, the benefit amount gradually phased out.

Blame game

In pushing for another small package, McConnell blamed Democrats for holding up larger-scale relief.

“Republicans do not agree that nothing is better than something for working families,” he said in a statement. “The American people need Democrats to stop blocking bipartisan funding and let us replenish the PPP before more Americans lose their jobs needlessly.”

Senate Democrats have criticized Republicans for pushing ahead with a Supreme Court confirmation in the midst of an election instead of focusing on a new pandemic relief package. McConnell said the Senate would have time to vote on a new aid bill when it reconvenes next week, even as it prepares to take up the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

“Unless Democrats block this aid for workers, we will have time to pass it before we proceed as planned to the pending Supreme Court nomination as soon as it is reported by the Judiciary Committee,” he said.

Trump has pushed specifically for PPP funding in recent weeks, along with a new round of tax rebates and $25 billion in additional aid for the pandemic-battered airline industry. McConnell when describing his bill Tuesday did not mention airline aid.

The earlier GOP bill that Senate Democrats blocked last month would have provided $650 billion in total assistance, with $350 billion of the costs offset. McConnell didn’t clarify whether his $500 billion figure was a gross or net cost.

House Democrats have sought at least $2.2 trillion in aid. A bill they passed Oct. 1 over Republican opposition would provide a total of $2.6 trillion in aid with a net cost of $2.2 trillion after accounting for offsetting tax increases and rescission of unused PPP funds.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlined a host of concerns with the latest White House proposal in a flurry of letters to her caucus in recent days.

“Tragically, the Trump proposal falls significantly short of what this pandemic and deep recession demand,” she wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers released Tuesday. She has pushed for more money for state and local governments, more detailed plans for vaccine testing and tracing, more rental assistance, and expanded tax credits for low-income families, among other things.

During a conference call with House Democrats on Tuesday, Pelosi had House committee leaders speak in opposition to the administration’s latest offer, according to sources who heard the comments.

Pelosi said while she appreciates “a couple people” urging her to take the deal, she doesn’t think Democrats need to settle now, especially with Trump urging lawmakers to “go big.”

“We really need to have an agreement, but we cannot have an agreement by just folding,” Pelosi said, according to one of the sources. “I don’t think our leverage has ever been greater than it is now.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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