Politics

McConnell says he will not negotiate with Democrats on liability protections in coronavirus bill

Key Points
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not bring up a coronavirus aid bill in the Senate which does not include liability protections. 
  • "We're not negotiating over liability protection," he said as Republicans and Democrats try to strike an agreement on pandemic relief. 
  • Democrats have generally opposed legal immunity for businesses. 
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Mitch McConnell: We don't want to make it more profitable to stay home than work

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he will not pass a coronavirus relief bill in the Senate which does not include liability shields. 

"We're not negotiating over liability protection," he told CNBC's Kayla Tausche as Congress looks to craft a pandemic rescue agreement. He noted, however, that the GOP is open to compromise on other issues. 

Senate Republicans released their coronavirus aid proposal on Monday. It includes a cut to the enhanced $600 per week federal unemployment benefit, another round of direct payments to Americans, liability protections for businesses and doctors, and more funding for Paycheck Protection Program small business loans. 

Democrats have generally opposed the legal shield because it could take away a recourse for workers who return to an unsafe workplace as the pandemic spreads around the country. McConnell contended "there's no chance of the country getting back to normal without it." 

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

Asked about a CNBC/Change Research poll that found a majority of voters in six swing states oppose shielding corporations from lawsuits, McConnell said, "this is not just liability protection for businesses, although they are included like everyone else." He noted that it would also cover doctors, universities and K-12 schools, who could not get sued unless they were "grossly negligent or caused intentional harm." 

McConnell spoke shortly before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., planned to meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for the second straight day. The group will try to hash out differences between Republicans and Democrats on how best to boost an economy and health-care system ravaged by the coronavirus. 

Congress faces pressure to quickly approve new relief, as states stopped paying out the extra federal unemployment benefit last week. Roughly 30 million people are still receiving some form of unemployment insurance as U.S. coronavirus cases surge above 4.3 million. 

A federal moratorium on evictions also expired last week.

In a joint statement Tuesday, Pelosi and Schumer said that "catastrophe is looming, and until Senate Republicans get serious, they must answer to every hungry child, every family that cannot make rent, every worker being denied their UI for their delays." 

"Democrats remain ready to work with Republicans on real solutions to bring immediate relief and save lives and livelihoods," they said.

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How unemployment benefits are taxed

The Democratic leaders also criticized the legal immunity provision, saying it shields "employers who do not protect workers' health and safety, while offering no [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] protections to ensure workers can trust in safe workplaces."

The GOP legislation would slash the jobless benefit to $200 per week from $600, on top of what recipients normally get from states, through September. The plan would then replace 70% of a person's previous wages. 

Democrats have warned that reducing the extra benefit will leave millions struggling to cover costs and harm the economy by reducing household spending. The possibility of Americans seeing their income plunge just as the eviction moratorium expires also raises more concerns about people losing a place to live. 

McConnell called unemployment benefits "extremely important" during an economic crisis, but said individuals should not have a higher income at home than they did at their jobs. 

"And remember, all of these folks are going to get another $1,200 direct payment," he said. 

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the GOP economic proposal, 2020 election