WASHINGTON — As Congress and the White House try to negotiate a deal to fund the government and provide relief to Americans struggling from the coronavirus pandemic, top congressional leaders met Tuesday for the first time in months.
It’s perhaps the clearest sign that a deal may actually be coming together after a bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise on coronavirus legislation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the phone for more than an hour Tuesday before the top four leaders in Congress met later Tuesday.
But an agreement could still be elusive.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has insisted on including a provision to bar lawsuits by people who say they were negligently exposed to coronavirus by a business, school or health care provider. But last week, McConnell said he would drop his liability shield proposal if Democrats dropped their demand for money to help state budgets that have been depleted by the coronavirus recession.
He reiterated on Tuesday that both sides should “live to fight another day on what we disagree on.”
“We’re not leaving here without a COVID package,” McConnell added at a weekly news conference. “No matter how long it takes, we’ll be here.”
Dropping $160 billion in state and local funding could be a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. Both Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have said that state and local aid is a priority in a coronavirus relief deal.
State and local governments are confronting tax revenue shortfalls as the virus and related restrictions sharply reduce in-person shopping, dining and events. Some Republicans support the aid, but others say state and local lawmakers should just cut their spending and deal with it, even though doing so would result in layoffs that would include police officers and other first responders.
The bipartisan working group crafted a $748 billion stimulus bill that would reauthorize federal unemployment benefits while providing billions of dollars for businesses and for vaccine distribution. The lawmakers set aside a revised version of McConnell’s lawsuit ban along with $160 billion for states after only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), was willing to support the liability changes.
McConnell hasn’t said whether he supports the policies in the $748 billion package, which includes a reauthorization of federal unemployment programs, plus an extra $300 per week and an additional 16 weeks of eligibility for the long-term unemployed. In his own proposal this month, McConnell did not include extra benefits or additional weeks of eligibility
A relief package totaling $748 billion, enacted, would fall far short of what Democrats initially demanded this summer. The House approved a $3 trillion measure in May, followed by a $2.2 trillion bill in October. The Trump administration also previously offered Democrats a $1.8 trillion deal, which they rejected as inadequate.
If lawmakers fail to act by Dec. 26, nearly 12 million people will lose their unemployment income at the end of the month. Student debt forbearance, an eviction moratorium, a new paid-leave program and several tax breaks, all enacted in response to the pandemic, will also expire ― just as the numbers of new infections and deaths shatter records.
The bipartisan plan unveiled earlier this week would extend the eviction moratorium ― but only for one month, until the end of January. It does not extend the paid sick leave program Congress approved earlier this year, and it does not include a second round of stimulus checks.
A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus
- How long does it take for the coronavirus vaccine to work?
- Which masks will actually keep your face warm this winter?
- Can you close your COVID “bubble” without losing friends forever?
- How will spending the holidays in quarantine affect our mental health?
- What happens to all those face masks and gloves we’re tossing in the trash?
- Find all that and more on our coronavirus hub page.
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