- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum stormed back to Washington this week vowing to break an eight-month stalemate and get some sort of coronavirus relief package done by the end of the year.

As part of that push, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat, renewed talks with the Trump administration and also exchanged proposals with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Congress’s top Republican — though the two parties appear to remain far apart on a price tag.

Frustrated with the bickering on high, a bipartisan group of centrists released a $908 billion framework Tuesday designed to bridge the gaps, giving Democrats the cash infusion they’ve demanded for state and local governments and giving Republicans liability protections to shield businesses from coronavirus lawsuits.

“It’s inexcusable for us to leave town and not have an agreement,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat and a leader of the group, which spans the House and Senate and includes Democrats, Republicans and an independent.

The last major coronavirus legislation was approved eight months ago, just as the pandemic was taking hold. Since then, millions have contracted COVID-19 and more than 200,000 Americans have perished from it. The economy cratered, began a recovery, then stalled out as a new wave of cases hit.

Many of the programs approved in the previous round of assistance have either expired or will shut off at the end of this month, as the clock ticks over to 2021.

Ideas are coming fast and furious.

Some analysts have proposed tying a new round of stimulus checks to whether Americans get vaccinated.

Many lawmakers say any effort to renew unemployment benefits should be better tailored than the last go-around, which saw $600-a-week checks go out from Uncle Sam, in many cases leaving laid-off workers better off than they would have been if they’d been on the job. Businesses have reported struggling to hire workers because employers can’t compete with that generous unemployment program.

But the appetite for those kinds of experiments is pretty low on Capitol Hill, where leaders are struggling just to narrow the gap between House Democrats’ $2 trillion-plus ante and the Senate GOP’s half-trillion dollar proposal.

“We don’t have time for messaging games, we don’t have time for lengthy negotiations,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday. “The issue is, can we get a result.”

He said he talked with the White House to see what kind of bill President Trump would sign, and he’s now working on legislation that meets those goals.

The Kentucky Republican seemed cool to the latest offer Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer delivered Monday night.

Mr. McConnell has said Congress should focus on the things all sides agree on, such as a new round of money for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which pumped hundreds of billions into small businesses to allow them to keep workers on payrolls as the pandemic hit.

That’s the least-common-denominator approach to legislating that has prevailed on spending fights for most of the last decade.

The bipartisan centrists took a different approach, saying now is the time for a compromise that gives each side something it wants, even if it means swallowing something it doesn’t.

Their plan would revive the PPP, but it would also include another round of unemployment benefits for those who are laid off.

It includes some money for states and municipalities, which had been a major demand of Democrats. And it includes short-term liability protections for businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, which Republicans had insisted on.

“Republicans and Democrats — neither of us got everything we wanted. Both of us got much of what we wanted,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican. “This is a victory for the American people, this is a victory for common sense.”

The bill has the support of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, a group of 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats, giving it a critical imprimatur.

Neither Mrs. Pelosi nor Mr. McConnell endorsed the plan, though lawmakers involved said neither leader discouraged them from making the effort to forge a plan.

Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he can get behind the plan, saying it covers all the issues, though it’s less money than he wanted.

Republican leaders, though, said the $160 billion the centrists earmark for state and local governments is a nonstarter.

The centrist proposal also contains $288 billion for the PPP and other business assistance, $45 billion for airlines and transit, $82 billion to bolster schools, $180 billion for another round of unemployment benefits and money for the post office, student loans, food stamps and drug treatment.

The money is designed to last through the first quarter of 2021.

A major concession to Republicans was inclusion of the liability protections.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who was not part of the centrist group, seemed open to it, suggesting it could be attractive to Democrats who’d held out for a much larger price tag.

And he outlined the stakes for a deal now.

“I think in terms of the total number, $900 billion in December will be much more valuable than twice that will be in March or April,” he said. “If we do’t get this done in December, I’d be surprised if we got anything done before March.”

If a deal is to be reached, it will have to compete for floor time with other pressing needs.

Government funding expires at the end of next week, and Congress is also working on the annual defense policy bill, which is considered one of the few must-pass pieces of policy legislation each year.

Mr. Trump’s demand for more border wall money is a sticking point for the government funding package, while his opposition to renaming military bases that currently honor Confederate generals is complicating the defense bill talks.

One option being floated is to combine the funding bill with the virus relief package.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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