Politics

Bipartisan group releases Covid relief bill as Congress faces pressure to send help

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Key Points
  • Congress aims to approve another coronavirus relief package and a government funding bill this week as millions are set to lose financial benefits during the pandemic.
  • A bipartisan group released its $908 billion aid legislation Monday, but lingering disagreements over state and local government aid, liability protections and direct payments could make reaching a deal a challenge.
  • The measure would also put $6 billion into vaccine distribution.
Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, center, speaks during a news conference with the Problem Solvers Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Congress faces more pressure than ever this week to pass another coronavirus relief bill.

Lawmakers' ability to break a longstanding logjam and send more help will play a massive role in how much more the crisis ravages Americans' health and wallets.

Congressional leaders aim to approve both pandemic aid and a spending package before government funding lapses Saturday. Republicans and Democrats still need to strike a deal on both fronts with only days to spare before millions would face eviction or the loss of unemployment benefits.

A bipartisan group hopes to spur movement toward legislation that can get through the GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-held House. Lawmakers from both chambers released a $908 billion rescue package Monday, split into two bills as the negotiators did not agree across the board.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and co-chair of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus that helped to spark the deal, said he hoped the bill would help to shape a proposal Congress can pass this week.

"It doesn't have to be every single word that we hand [congressional leaders] … but this is a clear road map for them," he told CNBC on Monday morning before the legislation was unveiled.

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Members of both parties have stressed the need to send relief before they go home for the holidays. What they have not agreed on since April is what help exactly the health-care system and economy need until widespread vaccination reins in a disease killing thousands of Americans every week.

"It's time for this body to collectively recognize that finger pointing doesn't put food on the table for struggling families," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has done his share of blaming Democrats for the aid delays, said Monday.

The Kentucky Republican called for a bill this week that addresses areas including Paycheck Protection Program small business loans, vaccine distribution funds and an extension of a pandemic-era unemployment insurance expansion. He notably did not address the merits of the bipartisan legislation before its introduction. McConnell previously rejected the plan after negotiators released an outline.

Ahead of the bill release Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said "we look forward to reviewing" what the group introduces. He added that his party is "100% committed" to approving more relief this week.

Congress has very little time. The House is not expected to take any votes before Wednesday, according to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office.

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In one sign of efforts to find consensus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke for about 30 minutes on Sunday about spending and stimulus. The pair plans to talk again Monday, according to Pelosi's spokesman, Drew Hammill.

Congress has come closer to checking off at least one part of its to-do list this week. Lawmakers are close to a deal on legislation to fund the government through Sept. 30, 2021, NBC News reported. Appropriators hope to introduce a spending bill as soon as Tuesday, according to NBC.

Pelosi and McConnell have said they want to tie coronavirus relief measures to the funding legislation.

Congress faces a challenge in trying to resolve several sticking points before Friday.

The parties have failed to settle disputes over proposals to give businesses immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits and send aid to cash-crunched state and local governments. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have threatened to delay passage of a bill if it does not include another direct payment to Americans. The bipartisan proposal does not include a second $1,200 check.

Republicans have pushed for a legal immunity plan. While they argue the provision would save small businesses from frivolous lawsuits, Democrats say it would endanger workers put into dangerous positions by their employers.

Meanwhile, Democrats and many Republicans have pushed for state and local funding as essential to preserve jobs for first responders and streamline the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, which Americans started to receive Monday. McConnell and President Donald Trump have contended the funds would bail out mismanaged states. Bipartisan governors have called for at least $500 billion more in state and local relief.

Underscoring the disagreements, the bipartisan group in the Senate unveiled two separate bills Monday. One includes the lawmakers' legal immunity and state and local aid proposals. The other contains everything else.

"We can compromise on liability and state and local," Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., told CNBC.

McConnell has urged Congress to pass a package without either provision and then address them in another bill after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. Democrats have insisted on including new money for state and local governments now.

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"The Speaker believes, at a time when the virus is surging, that the need for state and local funding is even more important, especially given the states' responsibility for distributing and administering the vaccine," Pelosi spokesman Hammill tweeted after the Democrat's call with Mnuchin.

"Health care workers and first responders are risking their lives to save lives and at the same time, are at the risk of losing their jobs without state and local support," he continued.

McConnell on Monday described grants for vaccine rollouts as "the support that state and local governments need most urgently."

Democrats have backed the $908 billion proposal as the framework for a final deal. The larger of the two bills unveiled Monday would cost $748 billion.

The proposal puts about $300 billion into small business support, including restaurants and entertainment venues, according to a summary released by the bipartisan group. Independent companies have struggled to survive, and the window to apply for PPP loans expired earlier this year even as funds remain in the program.

The proposal would extend provisions to expand unemployment insurance set to expire the day after Christmas for 16 weeks. It would add a $300 per week federal jobless benefit supplement for four months. If the jobless benefits expansion lapses, about 12 million people would lose insurance.

The bill would temporarily extend an eviction moratorium through Jan. 31 and put $25 billion into rental assistance. The measure would also put $6 billion into vaccine development distribution, and another $10 billion into testing and contact tracing.

It would also put $82 billion into education funding and extend federal student loan forbearance through April 1. The legislation would also direct $45 billion to the transportation sector and $10 billion into broadband access.

The second piece of legislation would send $160 billion in state and local aid, according to a summary. The federal government would dole out part of the money based on state population and a portion of it based on relative revenue losses during the pandemic. States could not increase the amount of money they put into pensions if they receive aid.

The measure would also set a "nationwide gross negligence standard" for Covid-related claims.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and one of the bipartisan negotiators, described the plans as "emergency" measures.

"Now it's up to the leadership to take it, and make this happen in a timely basis," he said in unveiling the bills Monday.

But the bipartisan legislation will run into opposition. For one, it does not include another round of direct payments. Many progressives in Congress have argued that, without more direct financial relief, the plan would not offer enough help to people struggling to afford food and rent.

Sanders and Hawley did not follow through on a threat Friday to delay passage of a measure that funded the government for one more week. However, Sanders warned that he would do so this Friday if Congress has not agreed to send another direct payment.

Ahead of the release of the bipartisan bill text Monday, Sanders said Congress needs to provide more money to millions of people facing "economic desperation."

"Congress cannot go home for the Christmas holidays until we pass legislation which provides a $1,200 direct payment to working class adults, $2,400 for couples, and a $500 payment to their children," he said in a statement. "This is what Democrats and Republicans did unanimously in March through the CARES Act. This is what we have to do today."

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