A bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill on Monday revealed details of a $908 billion compromise coronavirus-relief bill that sectioned off the most difficult items in a separate bill.
The divided legislation underscored the difficulty of breaking the impasse even among the bipartisan, bicameral coalition of self-described “problem solvers.”
The two-bill package put the easy stuff in a $748 billion measure and the stumbling blocks — liability protection for businesses and extra funding for state and local government — in a $160 billion bill.
The “908 coalition” said their product wouldn’t please everyone, but praised it as a completed, bipartisan package that could get vital aid to Americans before the holidays.
“I think we’ve had a Christmas miracle occurred in Washington,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican. “These bills are comprehensive, but they don’t cover everything that everyone would want … but surely, let’s not go home for Christmas without passing this much needed relief for the American people.”
“Bipartisanship and compromise is alive and well in Washington,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat.
The vast majority of less controversial elements went into the “consensus” bill.
It includes $300 billion for the Small Business Administration, including funds for a new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, 16 weeks of unemployment benefits with an additional $300-per-week payments, $82 billion for education funding, and $16 billion for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution.
It also addresses several expiring benefits and aid programs, including a student loan forbearance extension until April 1, an eviction moratorium through Jan. 31, and $25 billion in rental assistance.
“There’s no excuse for either [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] — you’ve got to give us a vote. Don’t let us go home for Christmas without a vote on this,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said of the $748 billion bill.
“Maybe you’ve got something better. Be my guest … but there’s no excuse for us not acting now that we’ve put in all this work on a bipartisan basis,” he added.
The toughest hurdle for the group was addressing the chasm between Democrats’ insistence for state and local government funding and the GOP’s demand for liability protections.
Their other bill attempts to bridge the gap by allotting $152 billion to state and local governments with distribution broken up with the first third of the money determined by a state’s population and the rest based on revenue losses. Lawmakers also included provisions prohibiting any of the funds to be used for pensions. An additional $8 billion is set aside for tribal governments.
On the liability protection front — the bill would implement a national gross negligence standard for coronavirus-related lawsuits and allow the attorney general to investigate any pattern of “meritless demand letters.” It also extends additional protections for employers that try to follow public health standards. The protections apply to injuries dating back to December 2019 and extend for a year if the bill gets passed.
This bill does not have the full unanimous support of the bipartisan group, but as talks continue, lawmakers hope to eventually merge the bills.
The package does not include another round of direct payments at either the $1,200 level from March or the $600 level proposed by the Trump administration earlier this week.
“As a result of the pandemic, tens of millions of Americans are facing economic desperation. They can’t afford to pay their rent and face eviction, they can’t afford to go to the doctor, they can’t afford to feed their children and they are going deeper and deeper into debt,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said in response to the package.
Mr. Sanders and Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, are pushing for a vote on their own measure that would provide another round of direct payments of $1,200 to individuals and $500 per child, eyeing the upcoming government funding package as potential leverage.