What's on Tap as Congress Seeks Deal 12/05 09:49
After numerous fits and starts and months of inaction, optimism is finally
building in Washington for a COVID-19 aid bill that would offer relief for
businesses, the unemployed, schools, and health care providers, among others
struggling as caseloads are spiking.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After numerous fits and starts and months of inaction,
optimism is finally building in Washington for a COVID-19 aid bill that would
offer relief for businesses, the unemployed, schools, and health care
providers, among others struggling as caseloads are spiking.
Under pressure from moderates in both parties, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have initiated late-game
negotiations in hopes of combining a relief package of, in all likelihood, less
than $1 trillion with a separate $1.4 trillion governmentwide omnibus spending
bill. The duo were the architects of the $1.8 trillion CARES Act, the landmark
relief bill passed in March.
Success is not certain and considerable differences remain over items such
as aid to states and local governments, liability protections for businesses
and universities reopening during the pandemic, and whether to issue a second
round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans.
But renewing soon-to-expire jobless benefits, providing a second round of
"paycheck protection" subsidies, and funding to distribute vaccines are sure
bets to be included in any deal.
Here are the top issues for the end-stage COVID-19 relief talks.
The CARES Act created a $600 per-week bonus COVID-19 unemployment benefit
that sustained household incomes and consumer demand during the springtime
shutdowns. It expired at the end of July and Republicans are against its
renewal. The CARES Act also allowed for additional weeks of emergency pandemic
unemployment payments at regular benefit levels --- which are themselves about
to expire, on Dec. 31. Any deal is sure to extend the emergency benefits, and a
bipartisan compromise framework that's helping guide the talks calls for
restoring half of the bonus benefit, or $300 per week more.
Another sure thing is a reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection Program,
also established by the CARES Act, to give a second round of subsidies to
businesses struggling through the pandemic and make other changes to the
program, which enjoys bipartisan support but is particularly revered by
Republicans. Leftover PPP funds from two springtime infusions into the program
would cover almost half of the $300 billion or so cost.
President Trump has long supported another $1,200 round of direct payments
to most Americans, subject to income limits that make upper-bracket taxpayers
ineligible. House Democrats support the idea, but it is unpopular with many
Senate Republicans and was left out of a scaled-back Senate GOP plan. A
bipartisan bill by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others, leaves out the
direct payments as well, and their up to $300 billion cost could render them
too expensive for inclusion in the year-end package, though lawmakers ranging
from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are pushing
to retain them.
STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
This is one of the trickiest issues in the talks --- another round of aid to
states and local governments to follow a $150 billion installment this spring.
It's a top priority of Pelosi and other Democrats but is opposed by many
Republicans, who warn it would bail out states run by Democrats like California
and New York. Trump doesn't like the idea as well, but Pelosi's demands for the
money have been slashed from earlier amounts approaching $1 trillion. Revenue
losses due to COVID-19 haven't been as large as feared. But smaller localities
left out of the first tranche of payments are eager for funding. A plan
endorsed by moderates would provide $160 billion.
Businesses reopening during the pandemic have for months been seeking a
shield against lawsuits claiming negligence for COVID-19 outbreaks. McConnell
is the most potent backer of the idea and he's drafted sweeping protections
against lawsuits for businesses, universities, and other organizations. The
powerful trial lawyers lobby --- which still holds great influence with
Democrats --- is opposed, and McConnell's fears of a wave of COVID-related
lawsuits haven't materialized. Veteran Senate Judiciary Committee members Dick
Durbin, D-Ill., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have been deputized to negotiate the
issue, a sign the talks are at a serious stage.
ODDS AND ENDS
Numerous smaller items are ripe for inclusion, including $10 billion for the
Postal Service, a $20 billion-plus deal adding food aid sought by Democrats and
farm subsidies favored by Republicans, more than $100 billion in funding for
schools seeking to reopen, along with funding for child care, Amtrak, transit
systems, and health care providers.