President Donald Trump's negotiators fanned out on Capitol Hill Tuesday over a new COVID-19 aid package as divisions between the White House and Senate Republicans pushed talks into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to deal with the mounting crisis.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows were conferring with GOP senators before pivoting in the afternoon to Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, trying to meld the GOP's emerging $1 trillion proposal with the House's more sweeping $3 trillion bill.
With the pandemic showing no signs of easing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Washington must develop a strategy to safely reopen schools and businesses until a vaccine can be found.
"We want another round of direct payments — direct payments — to help American families keep driving our national comeback," he said.
McConnell added his package will send a fresh round of direct cash payments to Americans below a certain income level, extend small business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program and create a sweeping five-year liability shield against coronavirus lawsuits.
Lawmakers concede the daunting challenge of trying contain the coronavirus. The U.S. has the more infections and a rising death toll of over 140,000, more than anywhere else in the world. The health crisis is worsening just as emergency economic relief is about to expire.
Trump convened GOP leaders at the White House on Monday and acknowledged a “big flareup” of COVID-19 cases. But the president, who will relaunch his daily televised briefings, is focused on therapeutics and a vaccine.
Trump's promise of COVID-19 cures are falling flat on Capitol Hill as lawmakers understand vaccines remain months, if not a year, from widespread distribution in the U.S. The federal government is still struggling to provide basic medical supplies and personal protective equipment to hospitals and health care providers.
Schumer dismissed the emerging GOP plan as favoring corporate interests over America’s working families, and repeating mistakes of spring when Trump pushed for states to ease stay-home orders and reopen.
“That will not, not get the job done,” Schumer said.
The package from McConnell, being crafted behind closed doors, is expected to include at least $70 billion to help schools reopen. It was not immediately whether the $105 billion amount McConnell stated Tuesday on the Senate floor included the second round of stimulus payments. It will likely replace an expiring $600 weekly unemployment benefits boost with a smaller amount. The GOP's proposed cut in unemployment assistance is designed to ensure that jobless people do not receive a greater benefit than if they were working.
But the president's priorities are splitting his GOP allies in Congress giving momentum to Democrats as talks are underway.
The administration criticized the GOP's push for $25 billion more in virus testing, saying earlier testing funds remain unspent. Trump at the White House insisted on a full payroll tax repeal that many Republican senators oppose. The White House also wants to link $70 billion in education funds to mandates that schools reopen.
Democrats are investigating why the Trump administration has left almost half the testing money unspent.
House Democrats have approved $100 billion as an education stabilization fund and Senate Democrats are seeking even more, $430 billion for schools and universities to re-open — with money for spacing students apart, buying masks for daily use and alternating bus schedules.
The political stakes are high for both parties before the November election, and even more so for the nation, as the virus crisis and economic fallout hits cities large and small.
Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumed presidential nominee, stated his own priorities. The new package should “deliver a lifeline to those who need it most: working families and small businesses,” he said.
Mnuchin has vowed passage by month's end, as a $600 boost in jobless aid is set to expire, and said he expected a fresh $1 trillion jolt of business tax breaks and other aid would have a “big impact” on the struggling economy.
Easing the payroll tax is dividing Trump’s party because it is used to finance Social Security and Medicare. The tax is already being deferred for employers under the previous virus relief package. Supporters say cutting it now for employees would put money in people's pockets and stimulate the economy, but detractors warn it would do little for out-of-work Americans and add to the nation’s rising debt load. McConnell is straining to keep the bill’s total price tag at $1 trillion.
GOP senators swiftly pushed back as the Republicans and the White House battled over priorities.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas was among several Republicans saying he’s “not a fan” of a payroll tax holiday.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Health committee, said, “All roads to opening school, going back to work, opening child care lead through testing.” Trump raised alarms on Capitol Hill when he suggested last month at a rally in Oklahoma that he wanted to slow virus testing.
Trump has insisted that the virus will “disappear,” but the president's view does not at all match projections from the leading health professionals.
The proposed virus aid package would be the fifth, following the $2.2 trillion bill passed in March, the largest U.S. intervention of its kind. While many Republicans hoped the virus would ease and economy rebound, it's become clear more aid is needed.
The jobless rate has remained in double digits, higher than in the last decade’s Great Recession, and a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units approved in the last bill is about to expire.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Andrew Taylor, Zeke Miller and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Va., and Hearst TV contributed to this report.