Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is signaling that Republicans are unlikely to accept a $908 billion coronavirus relief package being negotiated by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers, dealing a blow to hopes of a pre-Christmas deal.
McConnell’s staff on Wednesday night told aides to the other top congressional leaders that the Kentucky Republican sees no path to an agreement on state and local aid and liability protections that would be acceptable to his conference, according to a senior Democrat familiar with the conversations.
A McConnell aide declined to comment. McConnell's staff assessment of the bipartisan proposal was first reported by Politico.
On the floor Thursday morning, McConnell blamed Democrats for the bipartisan negotiations heading toward a deal Republicans wouldn’t like and accused them of blocking progress on issues where the two parties do agree.
“Our Democratic colleagues have not even let us pass noncontroversial money to invest in vaccine distribution — not unless the two parties settle a whole list of issues that are controversial the way they want," he said.
McConnell also blasted Democrats for opposing a liability shield, saying they’re “bullying small-business owners and college presidents, who’ve been pleading for these protections for months."
On Tuesday, McConnell proposed dropping the state and local and liability issues from the current negotiations and returning to them next year when another round of aid is likely to be debated, but Democrats rejected the suggestion.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, is continuing to push the bipartisan plan as the best prospect for a deal and suggested McConnell is the one getting in the way.
“What McConnell is putting forth in terms of liability is such an assault on American workers that I hope that the group goes nowhere near what he is presenting,” the California Democrat told reporters.
Some members of the bipartisan group insist they are close to finalizing details of their $908 billion plan, with language providing businesses some liability protection against coronavirus-related lawsuits the outstanding item.
Republicans say businesses need temporary immunity from what could become an avalanche of lawsuits, while Democrats argue that a right to sue is still needed to ensure worker safety. The bipartisan group has tried to come up with a middle-ground approach that, instead of blanket immunity, would provide businesses with an “affirmative defense” for fighting lawsuits if they follow certain health standards, but the group has struggled to nail down the language.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a member of the bipartisan group, declined to describe the latest liability proposals "because there are so many things on the table."
But the Utah Republican seemed more pessimistic about a solution coming together than he had in recent days. He said he'd be OK with McConnell's suggestion to wait to resolve the state and local and liability disputes until next year.
"There's not the urgency to resolve those issues that there is with things like unemployment insurance, help for small businesses, vaccine distribution. Those things we need right away," Romney said. "The other things, we have the time to deal with."
'It doesn't work'
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy cited the bipartisan group’s lack of a solution on liability as the reason for not supporting their plan.
“They don't deal with the liability protection, so it doesn't work,” the California Republican told reporters. “I think when you look at the plan that the president put forward, it's actually more money and more strategically helpful.”
McCarthy was referring to a $916 billion offer Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made to Pelosi on Tuesday. Democrats called the offer “progress” given it resembled many aspects of the bipartisan package, but rejected its proposed trade-off dropping a $300 weekly unemployment supplement in favor of onetime direct payments to lower-income households of up to $600 per person.
Many Republicans, even those pushing for direct payments to be included, did not like the proposed trade-off.
“I'd like to see unemployment insurance in the bill,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Wednesday, adding he thinks "there's room to grow" the package to include both.
"I'm encouraged that we've gone from direct assistance not even talked about to now the president, majority leader and the speaker all saying, 'Yeah, it should be in the bill,' ” he said.
Hawley on Thursday introduced a bill to provide for another round of direct payments identical to the ones provided in the March law of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for families making up to $150,000. He said he plans to try to force a Senate vote on the bill next week if a broader deal has not been reached by then.
The bipartisan group didn’t include direct payments in their plan because they were told Republicans wouldn’t accept a package costing over $1 trillion. If it comes down to a choice, most Senate Republicans would rather have the supplemental unemployment benefits than the direct payments, Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota told reporters Wednesday.
“My guess is it probably complicates trying to get this done,” he said.
With no signs of an imminent deal on coronavirus aid or the fiscal 2021 omnibus appropriations bill, House members headed home Thursday with instructions they need not return until at least Tuesday evening. That will give Congress less than four days to pass a massive fiscal package before the new Dec. 18 funding deadline.
“There's no point in having members here with nothing to do," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said as he announced the schedule update on the floor.
Although prospects for passing a coronavirus aid package before the Dec. 18 deadline diminished somewhat Thursday with Republicans’ opposition to the bipartisan plan, omnibus negotiations appeared to be going more smoothly.
“We're close,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, told reporters after receiving an update from his staff.
“There are a few things out there,” the Alabama Republican added. “Will we get something filed by tomorrow night? I don’t know. Possible. I can’t say it will happen.”
One major sticking point holding up an omnibus spending package has been how to handle emergency spending on veterans health care backed by House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Negotiators have battled for weeks over whether to exempt from statutory spending limits about $12.5 billion in funding needed to pay for helping veterans access private health care outside the VA system. Exempting that funding frees up more money that could be spent this fiscal year on other nondefense programs, something House Republicans and White House officials view as an end-run around budget caps.
In a possible short-term solution under consideration, the veterans funding would be removed from the omnibus entirely and included as part of an emergency coronavirus relief package, according to a senator familiar with the talks. Such a move could punt a final decision over whether future veterans money should be exempt from spending caps until at least next year, the source suggested.
Pelosi said she thought the omnibus talks were going well, but suggested the overall package may not be done in time to pass it by Dec. 18.
“We can't go before the package is ready, and the votes are there,” she said, noting the preference would be to get something done before the Christmas holiday but Congress could always return after if needed. “It has to be done before year’s end … We want it before December 26.” That's the point at which existing federal unemployment insurance benefits will lapse.
Chris Cioffi, David Lerman, Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.