An attempt by a group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress to stitch together a coronavirus-aid package would extend and revive some of the most popular provisions of the CARES Act from March — with one big exception.
“We’ve got your gift. Take it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, touting the group’s legislation to party leaders as something that could be voted on quickly on the Senate floor this week.
“It would be Scrooge-like if we went away and left folks the day after Christmas to lose their unemployment, or the day after New Year’s to lose their apartment,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. In addition to the 11 senators at Monday’s unveiling, the package is supported by the co-chairs of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, an evenly split group of Democratic and Republican House members.
The group unveiled its plan in two separate bills — a 600-plus-page, $748 billion one that the group said included emergency items that were supported unanimously, and a smaller, separate $160 billion bill to provide money to state, local and tribal governments and coronavirus legal liability protections for businesses and non-profits. The latter bill was largely supported by the group’s Republicans but not its Democrats.
The main bill would revive many of the more popular provisions in the $1.7 trillion CARES Act from March, though only briefly and often in a slimmed-down manner.
Unemployment assistance would be extended for another 16 weeks, with a federal add-on payment on top of state jobless checks revived at $300 a week, down from the $600 level in CARES. Student loan repayment forbearance would be extended through April 1, while an eviction moratorium would be extended through Jan. 31.
The politically popular Paycheck Protection Program aimed at giving money to small businesses would be revived with $300 billion made available for establishments to take a second round of aid. The loan forgiveness process for loans of $150,000 or less would be simplified.
The bill would also provide $45 billion for emergency funding for transportation, including assistance for airlines, airports, buses, Amtrak and transit. Another $82 billion would be targeted for education, with $54 billion for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools and $20 billion for higher education.
But the bill leaves out possibly the most popular CARES Act bit — another round of direct checks to Americans similar to the $1,200 ones in the spring. That idea was pushed last week by an ideological odd couple, liberal Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.
If the state and local portion and liability protections were tacked on, which appeared unlikely given Democratic opposition to the liability part, the entire proposal would cost about $908 billion.
Lawmakers are facing a narrowing window to take action. Many want to marry up a coronavirus-aid bill with an emerging government-funding deal that must be voted on by Friday to keep the government open. The head of the Senate Appropriations Committee said late Monday he expected that bill to be filed soon, possibly as early as Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also expressed a sense of finality. In opening remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell said, “The next several days are going to bring about one of two outcomes — either 100 senators will be here shaking our heads, slinging blame, and offering excuses about why we still have not been able to make a law. Or we will break for the holidays having sent another huge dose of relief out the door for the people who need it.”
“It’s up to us. We decide,” he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said he was encouraged by what was in the bipartisan bill, even as he said it would not be what ultimately passes.
“A lot of it has good stuff for potential inclusion in the year-end spending bill,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I don’t think they ever, the bipartisan group, expected their bill to become the bill that we actually passed, but I think it’s having a big, and a positive influence on what will be ultimately included.”
Late in the day, in a readout of a 22-minute conversation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the issue of state and local aid reemerged, A spokesman for Pelosi, in a tweet, said she had repeated her concerns about liability as “an obstacle to securing state and local funding.”