A bipartisan group of senators finally hit paydirt in its long-running coronavirus relief negotiations. But it’s not clear what exactly Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi will do with it.
Nearly a dozen centrist senators will present their much-anticipated product on Monday afternoon in two pieces: a $748 billion package boosting funds for education, vaccine distribution, transportation and other areas, and a $160 billion add-on of state and local aid coupled with a short-term liability shield for employers, according to four people familiar with the talks.
McConnell has already called for dropping the liability shield and local spending — the two most contentious issues — which suggests the first piece offers Congress a framework for finishing out the lame duck with a stimulus success after months of deadlock. The second part is more controversial even among moderate negotiators: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has signed off on it but other Democrats are more reluctant, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Congressional leaders are also holding their own coronavirus talks and will need to see the legislative text of the group’s work before weighing in publicly. Congress has not approved a new significant round of aid since April.
McConnell has not commented directly on the bipartisan proposal, though it does meet his general framework after he relented on previous demands for liability reform in any new stimulus measure. Democrats want the state and local funding though some have signaled they might be able to wait until next year, while conservative senators are mostly opposed to a new round of state aid.
The bipartisan group includes Manchin and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Among Democrats, only Manchin is currently expected to support the liability shield compromise.
Separately, Pelosi has continued to stay in touch with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about Covid relief negotiations, although the two tried for months to reach a broader deal on their own, to no avail. Mnuchin and Pelosi talked Sunday afternoon and plan to speak again Monday, according to her office. Pelosi last week publicly rejected an offer from the White House that would have included another round of stimulus checks but with less unemployment assistance, saying she’d prefer to focus on the bipartisan Senate proposal.
Pelosi wouldn’t say Monday whether she’s open to dropping Democrats’ demands for additional state and local funding.”I very much support state and local,” Pelosi said. “We are in negotiations,” she added when asked by reporters if it was still a “red line” for Democrats.
And there’s another issue: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are demanding any legislation include direct checks to individuals, which would balloon the price tag. The bipartisan group’s legislation does not include a new round of checks, according to sources close to the talks.
In an interview, Sanders urged Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to reject the bipartisan bill and said Congress won’t go home for the holidays without approving new checks. And he said it would be a raw deal for Democrats to settle for the bipartisan group’s bill, which marries unused money from previous relief with around $200 billion in new spending.
“What kind of negotiation is it when you go from $3.4 trillion to $188 billion in new money? That is not a negotiation. That is a collapse,” Sanders said. “We cannot go home until there is strong unemployment benefits plus $1,200 per adult, $500 per kid for every working person and family in this country.”
Sanders and Hawley’s position could force a deadline crunch later this week. The government is set to shut down on Friday without action and congressional leaders are hoping to attach a stimulus package to the government funding bill. The closer Congress creeps toward the shutdown deadline, the more leverage individual senators have.