Covid relief talks hit another wall as Congress runs short on time to send help

Key Points
  • Congress is struggling to reach a consensus on another round of coronavirus relief as unemployment benefits and an eviction moratorium are set to expire.
  • State and local government aid, liability protections for businesses, unemployment benefits, and direct payments continue to divide Republicans and Democrats.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for rejecting the latest Trump administration offer, which did not include extra jobless benefits.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attends a news conference with Republican leaders at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 8, 2020.
Kevin Dietsch | Reuters

Congress has hit a wall again in efforts to send help to Americans during a coronavirus outbreak that has killed thousands of people a week and left millions waiting in food lines.

After days of trying to reach a relief deal, lawmakers as of Wednesday afternoon had not resolved a range of issues preventing an agreement. A Congress that has failed for months to send aid to desperate people will now have to quickly resolve disputes to prevent millions of people from losing unemployment insurance or housing.

Democratic leaders have called bipartisan talks toward a $908 billion relief bill the best chance to craft a plan that can get through a divided Congress. Lawmakers have not yet finalized the legislation because of disagreements over legal immunity for businesses and state and local government relief.

Top Republicans have accused their counterparts of refusing to make a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., rejected a $916 billion offer from the Trump administration because it included a one-time $600 direct payment but no federal unemployment insurance supplement. The bipartisan package includes a $300 weekly boost to jobless benefits.

Pelosi and Schumer also brushed off Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's proposal to scrap his demand for business and university immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits if Democrats back off their calls for state and local aid. Democrats and many Republicans have called federal support necessary to prevent cash-crunched governments from cutting first responder and teacher jobs.

U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak to reporters about the 2020 U.S. presidential election results and the continuing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic during a news conference at the U.S.Capitol in Washington, U.S., November 12, 2020.
Hannah Mackay | Reuters

As of Wednesday, it was unclear what kind of plan could get through both the Democratic-held House and GOP-controlled Senate. Congress faces pressure to act: about 12 million people could lose unemployment benefits on the day after Christmas, and a federal eviction moratorium expires at the end of the year.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, McConnell repeatedly argued Democratic leaders have refused to strike a deal for political reasons. He even called their Tuesday response to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's relief offer "bizarre" and "schizophrenic."

"More deflection, more delay and more suffering for innocent Americans," he said of Democrats rejecting the White House proposal.

Here are five stimulus benefits set to expire at the end of 2020
Five stimulus benefits set to expire at the end of 2020

A spokesman for Pelosi did not immediately respond to a request to comment on McConnell's remarks.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Schumer again put his weight behind the bipartisan talks among rank-and-file members. He criticized the Trump administration offer's lack of jobless benefits relative to what the developing bill includes.

"Cutting unemployment to the extent he has is ... not going to get much support among any Democrats," Schumer said.

Sen. McConnell: Democrats 'moving goalpost' on new aid
Sen. McConnell: Democrats 'moving goalpost' on new aid

Congress is stuck in a stalemate as daily new infections hover around 200,000 and cases overwhelm hospitals. The health emergency has forced more state and local governments to implement economic restrictions in an already fragile job market.

Lawmakers plan to vote in the coming days to extend government funding by a week, through Dec. 18, to buy more time to strike broader spending and coronavirus relief deals. Federal funding will lapse Saturday if Congress fails to pass legislation.

Congressional leaders aim to resolve both issues before they head home for the holidays.

"How can we in good conscience go home for Christmas knowing that a day after Christmas, 12 million Americans will see their unemployment insurance disappear?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and the No. 2 senator in his party, on Wednesday.

The bipartisan group released a more detailed outline of its proposal on Wednesday. It would include $300 billion for small business support and $160 billion for state and local relief. It would also extend unemployment insurance expansion measures for four months and reinstate the federal jobless benefit at $300 per week.

The plan would include billions in state and local grants for Covid-19 testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution, along with support for schools and the transportation sector. It would extend federal student loan forbearance, currently set to expire at the end of January, through April. The measure would also provide $25 billion in rental assistance and sustain the eviction moratorium through January.

The outline released Wednesday does not include specifics on how the plan would address liability protections and state and local aid. Lawmakers reportedly aim to release more details on those provisions as soon as Wednesday.

Despite all that it includes, the proposal would not send a second round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans. An increasing number of Democrats have questioned how much the plan would really help individuals and families without another stimulus check.

Even a Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, urged President Donald Trump to veto a bill that lacks direct payments. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other Senate progressives have indicated they would oppose legislation that does not send more money into Americans' bank accounts.

"Here in Washington when we go to war, there's endless amounts of money," Sanders told MSNBC on Wednesday. "Tax breaks for billionaires? Endless amounts of money. Corporate welfare? Endless amounts of money."

"When children are going hungry in America today, suddenly we don't have enough money? That's crap. That's wrong," he added.

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