- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2020

America’s children are the top priority in the next COVID-19 relief bill, Republicans said Tuesday, as the negotiations intensified in Congress and the battle over reopening schools spilled over into the halls of the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the children were being hurt by the shutdowns.

“Surveys show the American people’s top priorities for reopening are child care and K-12 schools. This country wants its kids back in the classroom this fall — learning, exploring, making friends. Their educations depend on it. In some cases, their safety depends on it. And so do the livelihoods of working parents,” the Kentucky Republican said.

After children, jobs and health care are the other two issues Republicans plan to tackle in a roughly $1 trillion package they hope to pass by the end of the month.

Both chambers are set to take their August recess, with the House scheduled to leave at the end of the month and the Senate staying around until Aug. 7. But House Democratic leaders promised to stay until a bill gets passed.

Not all Republicans were thrilled with the package discussed at a Capitol Hill luncheon with GOP senators and the White House team spearheading the deal, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Sen. Rand Paul stormed out of the meeting.

“They’re talking about spending another trillion dollars. It’s fiscally irresponsible and they should be ashamed of themselves,” the Kentucky Republican said. “This is insane. They are ruining the country.”

To get the economy moving, the Republican plan would send out another round of stimulus checks to families and add more funds to the Paycheck Protection Program for business loans, which would be targeted to the hardest-hit businesses.

The package also would allocate funding for industries to buy personal protective equipment and cleaning equipment to keep businesses sanitized. Some money would be appropriated for vaccines and treatment research for COVID-19, focusing on health care advancements.

“The next recovery package will include strong legal protections for the health care workers that saves people’s lives and the schools, colleges, and businesses that want to reopen,” Mr. McConnell said of a bill that also has been a priority for President Trump.

Legal claims for gross negligence would be permitted, but the bill would include legal safeguards for hospitals, health care providers, schools, and businesses that make a good-faith effort to keep workers and customers safe. There also would be protection for older adults to make sure insurance premiums do not spike.

Mr. Trump said at his Tuesday afternoon press conference that he is looking at lowering the $600 weekly unemployment benefit to 70% of that amount, or $420. He said he opposed the original $600 amount, but he conceded that it “gave people a lifeline.”

Mr. Trump said the new benefit would be “a little bit smaller, initial amounts, so that people are going to want to go back to work as opposed to making so much money that they really don’t have to.”

“We were very generous with them,” he said. “I think that it’s been a tremendously successful program.”

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence held a roundtable discussion on the reopening of schools, saying there will be enough resources for testing to allow schools to reopen after Labor Day.

“Education is going to be in the forefront of our relief effort,” Mr. Pence said, noting the risks of coronavirus to children are “very low.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president wants to see federal funding tied to students, so if their school chooses not to reopen, they can pay for education elsewhere.

“The priority is for the student to receive the money, for the parent to have the choice and have a neighboring district with a school open they can send their child there,” she said on Fox News. “It is paramount for a number of reasons, for the whole health of the child, for children who depend on school lunches and social services that schools provide.”

She said the final package would include more than $70 billion to open schools safely.

Democrats weren’t thrilled with the president’s approach, arguing it was counter-intuitive — that schools needed money to reopen in the first place.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, blasted Republicans for engaging in a partisan one-sided process by not working with Democrats to draft the bill, arguing it would cater to special interests instead of helping workers.

Noting that unemployment claims has reached 50 million, the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. has topped 3.8 million, and more than 140,000 Americans have died, Mr. Schumer said the country has been “burning.”

Moving too fast to reopen schools — some as early as next month — could be a mistake, the Democratic leader said, just like states that reopened too quickly but were then forced to shut down in areas again after there was a spike in cases.

“We cannot repeat those mistakes when it comes to the schools and the safety of our kids,” he said.

Democrats have been pushing for extending the unemployment benefits, which are set to expire at the end of July.

“How clueless do you have to be to suggest that when more than 50 million Americans have been unemployed and displaced, as a result of the pandemic and the mismanagement of it by this administration, that we should walk away from providing everyday Americans with the assistance that they need to make it through this storm?” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat.

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