Negotiators are hoping by advancing both of these measures they will draw Democratic and Republican leaders into the negotiations to speed the process along and ultimately lead to a final package.
The two bills show how far the bipartisan group of negotiators took the process but also the limits of their effort, as they weren’t able to solve some of the most complex problems. Still, they didn’t let disagreements topple the entire push. Bringing their bills to congressional leaders could kick off a new round of higher stakes negotiating. Optimism about a deal getting hammered out to provide some emergency economic relief has risen on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discussed a relief bill with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday, and they were expected to talk again on Monday.
Lawmakers also made progress over the weekend on the government funding bills. Senior congressional leadership has aimed to include the stimulus legislation with the must-pass legislation to fund the government, but that effort has also not been finalized. Appropriators are now optimistic that a compromise deal could be hammered out by as early as Tuesday, according to aides familiar with the deliberations. Congress has until Friday to pass spending legislation or the government would shut down on Saturday.
“I really am optimistic this morning — very optimistic,” said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, citing conversations with Hill aides. “Nobody wants to be the Grinch that stole Christmas this year. They’ll get it done this week; I feel very confident in that for a change.”
The effort to break the months-long legislative logjam over economic aid has been spearheaded by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), among other centrist lawmakers.
The first bipartisan bill centers on providing hundreds of billions in aid in unemployment benefits and a second round of small business relief, while also devoting tens of billions to other needs such as education, transit agencies, hunger, and vaccine distribution.
The legislation is expected to include 16 weeks of unemployment benefits at $300 per week for jobless Americans, as well as $5 billion in opioid funding and $6.5 billion in funding for vaccine distribution, according to two people familiar with the plan’s details. The bill will also have an extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, at which point lawmakers hope the $25 billion in rental assistance would alleviate pressure on renters. Republicans resisted a longer extension of the moratorium, people familiar with the talks said.
The bipartisan effort has so far left out another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, although the White House included a second stimulus check worth $600 in its proposal last week. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have also threatened to block a package that left out the stimulus checks.
“It astounds me how just a few months ago [in May] the Democratic House passed the HEROES bill — $3.4 trillion,” Sanders said in an interview Monday. “It is now possible one of the proposals being discussed by Manchin and Romney will have $188 billion in new money. How do you go from $3.4 trillion to $188 billion? What kind of negotiating is that?”
Some lawmakers in the bipartisan group have suggested including another round of stimulus checks in the $740 billion proposal that excludes both the liability shield and state and local funding, according to two people granted anonymity to share internal deliberations. Republicans have sought to keep the price-tag of the bill below $1 trillion, but if state aid is left out then lawmakers may have enough money available to include the checks. The bipartisan group has circulated various options for structuring the checks, but have remained divided on the issue and failed to reach an agreement, aides said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) floated that negotiators leave out both the state and local aid provision and the liability shield, instead only voting on areas where both parties agree. Some Democratic leaders had balked at this pitch, citing potentially large budget shortfalls that could accelerate already stark layoffs among state and local governments. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-M.D.), the second highest-ranking Democrat in the House, suggested on Sunday that Democrats may be willing to support a deal leaving out the state and local aid component.
“Although I think state and local assistance is critically important, the others are critically important too,” Hoyer said on CNN. “We have millions of people who are at high risk, extraordinarily, health exposure, psychological exposure. We need to act … If we can get [state and local aid], we want to get it, but we want to get aid out to the people who are really, really struggling and are at great risk.”
Hopes of reaching a liability compromise that would be broadly satisfactory to both parties have dimmed despite furious work by members of the bipartisan group. Several proposals have been floated and discarded, including a Democratic proposal to create an indemnity fund to reimburse businesses who are sued over covid issues, but major sticking points remain. Among them: settling on a definition of “gross negligence” that would allow lawsuits to move forward, creating standards for moving state tort claims to federal courts and vice versa.
Multiple people familiar with the talks said there was broad agreement on how to structure state and local funding, using a complex formula to ensure jurisdictions use any federal relief to address covid-related revenue shortfalls. The formula, which takes into account both a scale of a jurisdiction’s revenue loss and its population, would ensure that states and localities would be reimbursed for an equitable share of their 2020 revenue loss even as more populous jurisdictions receive larger sums.
Lawmakers have little time to reach an agreement. About 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas if there is no extension in aid for the jobless. Somewhere between 2.4 million and 5 million American households are at risk of eviction in January alone if Congress fails to act, Syracuse University professor Gretcher Purser said in new research released Monday. And the U.S. economy shows new signs of deteriorating, with last week’s job report the worst in months.
“The plan is alive and well, and there is no way, no way that we’re going to leave Washington without taking care of the emergency needs of our people,” Manchin said on Fox News Sunday.
The bipartisan lawmakers’ group is set to unveil their proposals at a 4 p.m. news conference on Capitol Hill.