- The bipartisan group of senators leading efforts to pass a COVID-19 relief measure introduced two separate bills on Monday.
- The $US748 billion package contained enhanced unemployment insurance for 16 weeks and small business aid.
- The group broke off another plan which included a liability shield to prevent employers from getting sued over the virus as well as $US160 billion in federal aid to state and local governments.
- Lawmakers are running up against deadlines for the expiration of federal assistance programs on evictions, unemployment, and paid leave later this month.
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The bipartisan group of lawmakers spearheading efforts to pass an emergency federal rescue package unveiled the legislation on Monday. The moderate senators broke off $US160 billion in aid to state and local governments as well as a liability shield sheltering firms from virus-related lawsuits into a separate relief plan.
Isolating those components from the new $US748 billion proposal may increase the odds of a breakthrough as Congress enters a make-or-break week on stimulus negotiations. “There’s an awful lot of you who thought it couldn’t be done,” Sen. Joe Manchin said at a press conference introducing the legislation.
The bill omitted a fresh round of $US1,200 direct payments for Americans. Per a summary of the proposal obtained by Business Insider, the $US748 billion package included:
- $US300 billion in funds to renew the Paycheck Protection program for small businesses.
- $US82 billion in funds for K-12 and higher education.
- Funding for $US300 weekly enhanced unemployment insurance for 16 weeks from the end of December until April 19, 2021.
- 16 additional weeks of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers and independent contractors, which would end on April 19.
- $US25 billion in emergency rental assistance and a one-month eviction moratorium until Jan. 31.
The other rescue plan is made up solely of federal aid to states as well as the liability shield for firms, and both are contentious issues that clogged up progress on an emergency aid package for months. Democrats are warning of more layoffs among public workers without federal relief, which most Republicans are against. Meanwhile, the liability shield sought by the GOP is fiercely opposed by Democrats.
Senior Democrats signalled they were willing to set state and local aid aside to reach a deal. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told reporters on Capitol Hill Monday he could back a relief plan that didn’t include the provision.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the architects of the relief package, told Business Insider she hoped the legislation spurs Congressional leaders in the House and Senate “to pass either our package or something very much like it.”
“My hope is that we can add to it â€” the state and local aid and the liability provisions because I think they are both important too,” Collins said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill.
It’s also possible that Democratic and Republican leaders may push for an alternate plan instead of the one outlined by Collins, along with Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. There is also support among many Democrats to include another round of $US1,200 stimulus checks. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has urged Democratic leaders to approve the measure.
“It buys time for Congress to do something more substantial”
Congress hasn’t acted since the spring when it approved $US3 trillion in economic relief spending as the pandemic crashed into the US economy. Coronavirus cases have climbed rapidly over the past month, and nearly 300,000 Americans have died from the pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer embraced the $US908 billion bipartisan framework earlier this month in a major concession from previous demands for a multitrillion dollar relief package. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed for a slimmer aid plan that would direct the bulk of federal dollars towards small businesses, vaccine distribution, and schools.
Yet the liability shield and state aid quickly emerged as the main hurdles to a deal as negotiations continued. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he could support dropping both provisions from the relief package last week. Democratic congressional leaders initially panned the suggestion, though some now appear open to it.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber, opened the door to omitting state and local aid in a CNN interview on Sunday, saying lawmakers “need to act.”
“Although I think state and local assistance is critically important, the others are critically important, too,” Hoyer said. “We have millions of people who are at high risk, extraordinarily, health exposure, psychological exposure.”
Congress is running up against the expiration of several federal rescue programs in two weeks and it has little margin for error in the few legislative days left on its calendar. Some experts are raising concerns about the plan’s attempt to build a bridge for individuals and small businesses only until early next year.
“I wouldn’t calibrate fiscal policy for three to four months,” Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI, said in an interview. “Three to four months is a very optimistic assessment of when the vaccine will be widely distributed and when people will be comfortable going back to work.”
“Nobody thinks this will take us to the end of pandemic conditions,” Michele Evermore, an unemployment policy expert at the National Employment Law Project, told Business Insider. “It buys time for Congress to do something more substantial.”
Nearly 12 million people are at risk of losing jobless aid on the day after Christmas without a renewal of federal unemployment programs. In addition, an eviction moratorium and paid sick and family leave programs are also expiring this month.
Both chambers have until midnight Friday to pass another funding agreement to keep the government open. Congressional leaders are aiming to attach a pandemic relief bill to the annual spending package.