WASHINGTON — Congress faces a tight deadline this month to enact another coronavirus aid package as cases spike causing some states’ economic re-openings to stall, some push to send kids back to school in the fall and unemployment bonus payments end in three weeks.
The White House is pushing for a final bill to be passed by the first week of August, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stand far apart on what should be included that legislation and how much it should cost.
Congress remains on recess until July 20, giving them just 11 days to settle those differences and enact a bill that President Donald Trump will sign. Senate lawmakers and staffers are working behind the scenes on legislation that can pass with bipartisan support.
Democrats are pressing for another big, bold bill — the House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus package in mid-May. But the White House, McConnell and many Republicans said they want to cap the next, and possibly the last, coronavirus aid legislation at $1 trillion.
McConnell laid out his top priorities last week: “Kids, jobs and health care. Liability protection for everybody.” But Pelosi stood by the Democrats’ far-reaching bill: “Every piece of it is critically important.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a phone interview, “I am hopeful that when the time comes in the next few weeks, both sides will see those needs and come together the way we did on the big Covid-3 package.”
There are many measures at issue — including funding more testing and tracing, shoring up the Post Office and making changes to election systems. But here are five key differences that must be resolved.
On July 26, the last unemployment checks with the $600 bonus will be mailed. But no one wants to end unemployment payments altogether because anywhere from 18 million to 33 million people remain unemployed.
The House Democrats’ bill extends the bonus through January. Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proposed a bill to tie each state’s unemployment benefits to its three-month average unemployment rate, reducing the bonus by $100 for each percentage point drop until it sinks to 6%. The House is working on a similar stabilizer, Pelosi said.
But McConnell said on a podcast in Louisville, Kentucky last week that the $600 bonus “will probably not be included.” And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC that no one laid off will get more than they made at their jobs.
“I don’t think we ought to pay people not to work,” McConnell said. “I do think we need to make unemployment insurance stable, and the states will need assistance to do this because this high unemployment situation is going to go on longer than anyone would like.”
Direct cash payments
Both sides in Congress and the White House support another round of direct cash payments, even though $1.4 billion of the nearly $270 billion that the Treasury Department delivered in160.4 million payments went to dead people.
The House Democrats’ bill calls for another distribution of direct cash payments at the same level of $1,200 per person making $75,000 or less.
Some Republicans, concerned about having the highest national debt since World War II, oppose sending out more cash to people.
McConnell proposed a scaled-back version, sending funds only to those making $40,000 or less. Those workers — many of them in the hospitality field at hotels and restaurants — have “borne the brunt’ of the economic shutdown to fight the pandemic, he said.
That idea left Pelosi nonplused. “That $40,000 would have to be explained, justified, and the rest,” she said Thursday at her weekly news briefing. “But I think families making over $40,000 probably need assistance.”
Mnuchin said, “We do support another round of economic impact payments,” adding it would be hashed out. “I had a very productive call with Mitch McConnell yesterday.”
State and local governments funding
The federal government sent $150 billion to states and local governments with 500,000 or more population through the CARES Act enacted in March, but that money can only be used for coronavirus-related activities and for first responders — so much of it hasn’t been spent.
Two weeks ago, associations representing state and local governments urged Congress to provide more funds and to allow use for revenue shortfalls — citing the Congressional Budget Office estimate that their purchases dropped by $350 billion, causing a 9% drop in GDP.
The House Democrats’ bill would give nearly $1 trillion to state and local governments with fewer restrictions — allowing the money to be used for revenue shortfalls — and with funds for smaller governments.
McConnell is wary of sending more money to states.
“How much we send directly to states on top of $150 billion we’ve already sent is unclear,” he said. “The question is, what form does it take.” He added, “We'll take a look at it, but much of what we do will impact things that the state is normally responsible for like education, like unemployment insurance.”
Funding for schools and students
Given the push by Trump and others for schools to reopen in the fall, both sides in Congress said they’re willing to help fund the cleaning and logistics needed to address coronavirus issues.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Schumer have proposed a $430 billion bill for school reopening and child care, including a $345 billion educational stabilization fund for colleges and schools for financial aid and public health needs.
Trump’s push for money comes with a “school choice” agenda — he wants federal money to go to students, not school districts, so they can spend it where they want.
And Education Secretary Bestsy DeVos on CNN Sunday said it’s up to local school districts to determine how to follow the CDC’s guidelines to prevent a spread of COVID-19 infections.
"The CDC guidelines are just that, meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation," DeVos said. “There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them."
Pelosi, interviewed on CNN after DeVos, said those guidelines should be mandatory.
“The President and his Administration are messing with the health of our children,” said. “We all want our children to go back to school. Teachers do, parents do and children do. But they must go back safely."
One the biggest battles will be over McConnell’s insistence on granting businesses, schools and medical facilities immunity from lawsuits arising from COVID-19 infections for the next five years.
“Everybody should be protected from an epidemic of lawsuits already developing to try to take advantage of the situation,” McConnell said.
Democrats oppose granting blanket immunity to businesses.
“McConnell wants to make it harder for workers to show up at their jobs and to hold their employers accountable for providing safe working conditions,” Schumer said in April.
Yet Pelosi said there may be room for a compromise. The Democrats’ bill includes a proposal requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue emergency temporary standards for employers to protect any worker at occupational risk of exposure to COVID-19 — and employers could be protected if they meet those standards.
“We think there’s a path to talk about protecting businesses and workers and customers who come in, and that is our OSHA provision,” she said. “But again, let's hear what everybody has to say. But don't say, ‘You all have to go back to work, even if it isn't safe. And by the way, we're removing all responsibility from the employer.’”