WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Republicans have unveiled their coronavirus relief bill just days before a $600 weekly unemployment bonus expires, but deep divisions within the GOP remain.
The $1 trillion plan to help Americans get back on the job and in the classroom provides another round of direct payments, more money for small business loans, and liability protections for schools and businesses against pandemic-related lawsuits.
“These resources will prevent furloughs of thousands of employees,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
The Senate Appropriations chairman broke down the numbers, including $16 billion in new money to ramp up state testing efforts on top of $9 billion that hasn’t been spent yet.
The package will have “a particular emphasis on schools, employers, childcare facilities and nursing homes,” Shelby said.
The legislation also provides more than $100 billion to help schools and colleges reopen, sending most of it to those holding in-person classes.
“If you have to have more buses, if you have to hire more teachers, have to have more protective equipment, those schools need help paying for that,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chairman also worked to include opportunities for graduates to continue to defer student loan payments.
“If you have no income, you have no monthly payment,” Alexander said.
However, Senate Democrats argue the bill hurts unemployed Americans by cutting the weekly benefit from $600 to $200.
Under the GOP proposal, the jobless boost would be reduced to $200 a week through September and phased out to a new system that ensures no more than 70% of an employee’s previous pay. States could request an additional two months, if needed, to make the transition.
“In the middle of a pandemic, Senate Republicans and the White House want to give out-of-work Americans a 30-percent pay cut,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer said while the bill does include bipartisan priorities like the direct payments, the current version doesn’t even have a Republican consensus.
“Weeks of infighting among Senate Republicans and the White House caused unnecessary and harmful delays,” he said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows arrived on Capitol Hill for a second day of talks with Pelosi and Schumer. They also heard an earful during a private GOP lunch Tuesday.
Half the Republican senators are expected to oppose any bill. Several senators have vigorously questioned Mnuchin, Meadows and McConnell behind closed doors. They warned against caving to liberal demands and worried the price tag will balloon past $1 trillion, said Republicans who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private lunch.
“It’s a mess,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “I don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Republicans seek $16 billion for virus testing; Democrats want $75 billion.
For school reopenings, Democrats want four times the $105 billion that Republicans propose.
Democrats want to extend a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units that is expiring Friday, but Republicans are silent on evictions.
McConnell insisted no bill will pass without a sweeping liability shield for doctors, businesses and schools reopening. Democrats want tougher federal workplace safety oversight.
One major sticking point will be over funding for cash-strapped states and cities. Democrats proposed nearly $1 trillion for states and cities to avert municipal layoffs of government workers. Republicans gave no new money and prefer providing them with flexibility in previously approved aid.
The two bills are widely seen as simply starting points in talks. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said McConnell would be lucky to get half the Republicans on board.
“We’re in a war, OK, with the virus,” Graham said at the Capitol. “If you don’t think we need money for hospitals and doctors, you’re not looking at the same movie I’m looking at.”
An area of common ground is agreement on a second round of $1,200 stimulus payments to Americans earning $75,000 or less.
But Democrats also add a “heroes’ pay” bonus for front-line workers, money for food stamps and other assistance.
The Republicans come to the negotiating table hobbled by infighting and delays. Conservative Republicans quickly broke ranks, arguing the spending was too much and priorities misplaced.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. scoffed earlier that McConnell’s bill was sure to win support — from Democrats.
Republicans were scrambling to justify providing $1.7 billion for a new FBI headquarters in Washington that’s a top priority of the president but not of lawmakers or McConnell. Trump’s hotel is across the street from it on Pennsylvania Avenue. Keeping the property in federal hands, rather than relocating the FBI to neighboring Maryland or Virginia as some propose, prevents competing hotels on the prime downtown corner.
As bipartisan talks unfold, the White House has suggested a narrower relief package may be all that’s possible. Democrats have dismissed that as too meager. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “I haven’t heard any support for that.”
The $600 weekly jobless benefits boost, approved as part of the March aid package, officially expires Friday, but because of the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff has effectively begun.
Economists widely see signs of trouble in the economy as states revive stay-at-home orders.
Right now, a resolution isn’t expected for weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.