- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2020

The White House and Senate Republican leaders reached an agreement in principle Thursday for a fifth round of coronavirus relief, totaling about $1 trillion, including more direct payments to Americans and an extra $16 billion for testing.

Senate Republicans are expected to release various parts of the legislation Monday, facing an end-of-the-month deadline for the expiration of $600 weekly unemployment benefits that many Republicans call overly generous.

“The administration has requested additional time to review the fine details, but we will be laying down the proposal next week,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

President Trump expressed disappointment that the plan won’t include his proposed payroll tax cut through the end of the year.

“I think it’s great for the workers, [but] the Democrats would never have gone for it,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re not big into the workers, I guess. We need their votes. You still need Democrat votes.”

The president hailed a provision to spend $105 billion to help schools reopen safely during the pandemic, including mitigation such as smaller class sizes, masks and more teachers’ aides.

Mr. Trump said the proposal will include a funding provision to allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice, including private or religious schools, if public schools don’t reopen.

“If the school is closed, the money should follow the student, so that parents and families are in control of their own decisions,” Mr. Trump said. “Reopening our schools is also critical to ensuring that parents can go to work and provide for their families.”

Mr. McConnell said the decision on unemployment benefits would not repeat the “obvious craziness” from the earlier relief bill, which provided $600 per week. Many Republicans said the relatively high benefit discourages some people from returning to work because their jobs pay less.

That benefit expires July 31.

The bill was expected to be released Thursday, but there was still disagreement within Republican ranks on issues such as where to set the lower level for extended unemployment benefits.

The agreement with the White House emerged as the government reported that unemployment claims rose slightly last week to 1.4 million, with more than 17 million still out of work. It was the first increase in claims since the COVID-19 pandemic forced economic shutdowns in March.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said they would not accept any partial extensions of benefits or attempts to break the coronavirus relief into smaller packages. The House has approved a package totaling more than $3 trillion.

“We cannot piecemeal this. It has an integrity. It has a oneness about meeting the needs of the American people, defeating the virus,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Congress and the president already have approved roughly $3 trillion in coronavirus relief since March, piling up historic budget deficits to rescue the economy and beef up testing and health care services.

The Democratic leaders also slammed Republicans’ handling of negotiations.

“Now that Senate Republicans have finally woken up to the calamity in our country, they have been so divided, so disorganized, so unprepared that they have struggled to even draft a partisan proposal within their own conference,” said Mr. Schumer. “They can’t come together. Even after all this time, it appears the Republican legislative response to COVID is un-unified, un-serious, unsatisfactory.

“They’re so divided, and there’s no leadership from the president,” Mr. Schumer said.

Instead of a payroll tax cut, Mr. McConnell said, the proposal contains another round of checks to American households, similar to the CARES Act passed in March, in which many adults received up to $1,200.

He said it also includes more money for the Paycheck Protection Program to help the hardest-hit small businesses. Companies will be able to apply for second loans, provided they continue to pay their workers.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the additional PPP aid will be available for businesses with 300 or fewer employees and revenue that is down 50% or more.

Republicans still need to negotiate with Democrats after the White House and Senate Republicans agree on their proposal. Democrats are calling for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to states and cities and are insisting on keeping the $600-per-week unemployment benefit.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, blasted Republicans for suggesting that workers are unwilling to go back to their jobs because of the unemployment benefit.

“That argument does not pass the smell test,” Mr. Wyden said. “It’s an insult to American workers to say they would rather sit at home than to earn their pay at work.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, called on Republican leadership to extend the $600 payments. If those expire at the end of the week, she said, roughly $19 billion a week would be removed from the economy when recovery is already slow.

“I share your goal in doing everything possible to ensure that the economic recovery is as rapid as possible both to help the tens of millions of Americans affected by the current crisis and to minimize the long-term consequences of the crisis,” she said. “Extending the CARES Act’s expanded unemployment benefits is essential to achieving those goals.”

Several Republicans have broken ranks over concerns about the high cost of the package, how the party is addressing unemployment benefits and funds to hard-hit state and local governments.

Reports on Wednesday said Republicans were debating a short-term extension on the $600 a week to give Republican lawmakers more time to come to a consensus.

“I’d prefer we would find a solution for it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told reporters. “It would depend on how long that extension is for, if it is for two more weeks … that might be something I consider, but if it’s something longer than that, I think we really need to focus on the solution — on the sort of fix that takes into account potential disadvantage to return to work and the fact that some have no work to return to.”

Mr. Mnuchin said the White House is looking at approximately 70% wage replacement.

Democrats are committed to extending the full $600-a-week payments, but Mrs. Pelosi also wants to see what Republicans have to offer on direct payments to the public.

“I’m all for the $600 because people really need it,” she said. “But again, as I said, we have issues that relate to direct payments for people and the size of what that is and the rest. But I go to the table with the commitment to the $600.”

• Dave Boyer and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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