- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2020

The White House opened discussions with top congressional Democrats on Monday night aimed at closing a gap of more than $2 trillion in their competing coronavirus relief proposals, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissing Democrats’ costlier plan as a “socialist manifesto.”

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met at the Capitol with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer just hours after Mr. McConnell introduced Senate Republicans’ rescue package.

The GOP plan calls for reducing emergency federal unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 per week. Democrats want to extend the $600 payments, which are set to expire on Friday, through January.

Mr. Meadows said later it was “a very good meeting” with the Democrats and that they would resume talks on Tuesday.

The negotiations come as cases of COVID-19 are surging around the nation; 11 states last weekend hit records for coronavirus hospitalizations. Unemployment benefit claims rose slightly last week for the first time since March, to 1.4 million, while states also grapple with how and when to reopen schools.

Some states are weighing new stay-at-home orders. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, announced that bars would be closed for two weeks and restaurants would need to reduce capacity.

President Trump didn’t comment publicly on the Republicans‘ plan Monday, but said some governors still aren’t doing enough to reopen.

“I really do believe a lot of the governors should be opening up states that they’re not opening,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a biotech company in Morrisville, N.C.

Mr. McConnell said the three-part GOP plan, which totals about $1 trillion, is “tailored and targeted” to help students get back to school, workers get back to work, and to defeat the virus with expanded testing and treatments. Republicans named it the HEALS Act, for health, economic assistance, liability and schools.

“We have one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery,” the Kentucky Republican said. “The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive, and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroad.”

The GOP proposal, backed by the White House, also would provide another round of direct payments of $1,200 to most Americans (plus $500 for each dependent), and more than $100 billion for schools to reopen safely.

Democrats want to give qualifying adults $1,200 each, plus $1,200 per child up to three children. They also want to spend $430 billion on schools, including $50 billion for child care.

The GOP plan would add money to the popular Paycheck Protection Program, which helps struggling employers keep workers on the payroll, and provide liability protection for businesses reopening during the pandemic.

Democrats are calling for nearly $1 trillion in aid to states and local communities in their overall package, which would cost about $3.5 trillion. States and cities would get no new money under the GOP plan, but they would get more flexibility in spending money that was already allocated.

Heading into the closed-door negotiations, Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, called the Republicans‘ proposal “totally inadequate.” He complained, for example, that the GOP didn’t include hazard pay for frontline workers.

Mr. Schumer also blamed Republicans for a delay in their proposal that allowed a federal moratorium on evictions to lapse, and for putting 20 to 30 million people receiving unemployment in limbo.

“The White House and Senate Republicans couldn’t get their act together and wasted precious time,” Mr. Schumer said. “They can’t even put one bill together, they are so divided.”

About half of Senate Republicans are expected to vote against any rescue package, which would be the fifth approved by Congress since March, already totaling nearly $3 trillion.

Mr. McConnell said $1 trillion is an “appropriate” amount to add to the national debt, and he stressed liability protections against frivolous lawsuits must be in the legislation, noting there have already been 3,500 lawsuits filed.

One of the biggest disputes between the rival plans is the size and scope of unemployment insurance. Republicans are keen to reduce the $600 federal payments, which are in addition to regular state benefits, saying they pay many workers more than their normal wages.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said unemployment benefits in the GOP package would be reduced to $200 through September. In October, the payment would be replaced with a benefit of up to $500 that, when combined with the state unemployment insurance, would replace 70% of lost wages.

“This is a much more responsible approach that we didn’t have time to work out in the first CARES Act,” Mr. Grassley said.

Democrats quickly pushed back on lowering the unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 a week.

“People can lose their homes,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat. “Essentially, the Trump-McConnell plan tells people they are on their own. Their plans don’t come close to being enough.”

The GOP proposal includes a tax credit for businesses to use for cleaning and purchasing equipment needed to maintain a safe workplace for employees and customers. Mr. Grassley said there will be more money in the relief bill than the CARES Act approved in March to reimburse local government and nonprofits so layoffs can be prevented.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, drafted a proposal along with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to allow small businesses to receive more PPP funding. Small businesses with 300 or fewer employees that have had revenue decrease by 50% or more could apply for the new round of PPP forgivable loans.

“There are so many small employers and their employees who have been kept afloat by the first PPP loan they received, but need a second one to survive this persistent pandemic,” Ms. Collins said.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, drafted a proposal to protect businesses, schools and healthcare workers from frivolous lawsuits.

“Across the country, we are seeing lawsuits rolling in targeting the very healthcare workers who are on the frontlines,” he said, adding that the measure would not be “a blanket liability shield” against cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

Under the GOP proposal, $16 billion would go to states to ramp up testing with an emphasis on schools, employers, child care facilities, and nursing homes. Another $26 billion would pay for developing and distributing therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines.

There will also be $20 billion in assistance to farmers and ranchers, and $30 billion for defense contractors.

Before Senate Republicans unveiled their proposal, Mrs. Pelosi blasted their “piecemeal” approach and blamed them for slow-rolling Congress’ response to continued economic hardship.

“Children are hungry, families cannot pay the rent, unemployment is expiring and the Republicans want to pause again and go piecemeal,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “We have stood ready to negotiate for more than two months. Unfortunately, it still remains unclear if Republicans will produce a proposal today. If Republicans care about working families, this won’t take long. Time is running out. Congress cannot go home without an agreement.”

Conservative groups continue to push for cutting off the expanded federal unemployment benefit, and for crafting a school choice proposal as part of the education aid.

Club for Growth President David McIntosh said his group is “pushing very hard” with the White House and Senate Republicans to include in any final agreement a direct payment to parents of up to $10,000 per child to pay for private, religious, charter schools or home schooling, as public schools fail to open.

“Let them decide how best to craft an education program for their students,” Mr. McIntosh told reporters.

He said his group has sponsored polling that shows the proposal is a “strong positive” for the president and Republicans in swing states.

“It’s immensely popular with the Republican base,” he said.

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