Senators unveil compromise bills on COVID-19 relief

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed splitting COVID-19 relief into two separate bills in hopes of overcoming a deadlock in the Senate, but its fate is far from certain.

On Monday afternoon, a group of legislators led by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced a plan to include some pandemic relief in one bill, while combining two items that had been sticking points into a separate bill.

The total cost of the package, just over $900 billion, was much less than Democrats wanted.

“Basically two weeks ago we unveiled the framework and now we are here today. I know there is an awful lot of you thought that can’t be done, you surely to goodness couldn’t get everything agreed on and put into a bill, but guess what we did,” Manchin said at a press event, placing a printout of the legislation on the podium. “And then to make matters even better, we have two, because with every good negotiation you want to make sure you’ve covered everything.”

“We will not go home for Christmas until we pass legislation that gives relief to the American people,” Manchin added.

“I think we’ve had a Christmas miracle occur in Washington,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., who was part of the negotiations. “We have worked night and day for over a month. Literally on Thanksgiving Day, with texts and conference calls and Zooms to put together an emergency COVID relief package.”

The first section contained approximately $748 billion in various measures, including enhanced federal unemployment insurance, for the 12 million Americans who otherwise would lose their benefits on Dec. 26. Small business aid, rental aid and funding for mass transit agencies, education, addiction treatment, mental health and vaccine distribution are also included in the bill.

The legislation would also extend the eviction moratorium to Jan. 31, potentially giving President Biden time to extend it after he is sworn in on Jan. 20. Millions of Americans face eviction on Dec. 31 when the current federal moratorium expires. The announcement on the proposed legislation came on the same day the U.S. crossed the mark of 300,000 dead from COVID-19.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 1: Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., left, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., attend a news conference with a group of bipartisan lawmakers to unveil a COVID-19 emergency relief framework in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 1: Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., left, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., attend a news conference with a group of bipartisan lawmakers to unveil a COVID-19 emergency relief framework in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The second $160 billion bill contained two items that had been seen as dealbreakers for either side. Democrats have pushed for funding for state and local governments who had seen budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, while Republicans have advocated for a provision shielding businesses from lawsuits by employees who contracted COVID-19 on the job.

There is no guarantee that this legislation is what congressional leadership — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — will agree to bring to a vote, although McConnell has previously suggested stripping the state and local aid and liability shield from the deal. Manchin called both bills “important to the American people.”

While the COVID negotiations are ongoing, the government is also working on a funding bill to keep the government open. If they cannot pass legislation by Friday, the government would shut down on Saturday. There have been attempts to insert some pandemic relief into the funding bill, but details have not been finalized.

“Although I think state and local assistance is critically important, the others are critically important too,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a member of the House leadership team, told CNN on Sunday. “We have millions of people who are at high risk, extraordinarily, health exposure, psychological exposure. We need to act.”

Notably absent from the agreement were any sort of direct stimulus payments similar to the $1,200 that went out in the spring as part of the CARES Act. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., were among the most outspoken supporters of such payments. Hawley said last week that he had told President Trump to veto any legislation that didn’t contain the measure.

“I said, ‘I think it’s vital that any relief include direct payments, and I’m not gonna vote for it if it doesn’t.’ And I also urged him to veto any bill that did not have direct payments in it,” Hawley said.

In an interview with Politico on Monday, Sanders questioned how Democrats could support a bill that had come down so far in total dollar amount from previous proposals.

“What kind of negotiation is it when you go from $3.4 trillion to $188 billion in new money? That is not a negotiation. That is a collapse,” Sanders said. “We cannot go home until there [are] strong unemployment benefits plus $1,200 per adult, $500 per kid for every working person and family in this country.”

The CARES Act, passed in March, included expanded unemployment insurance (UI) payments of $600 per week on top of one-time $1,200 stimulus checks, and actually caused poverty to fall, keeping Americans afloat during the economic downturn. However, the primary federal unemployment benefits ended in late July without an extension or replacement from Congress, as a $3 trillion plan passed by the Democratic House in May was not brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

Last week, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said the price tag for the direct payments would be too high to attract Republican support.

“The $1,200 check, it costs, we believe, nationally $300 billion, to give you an idea,” said Durbin. “The Democrats have always wanted a larger number, but we were told we couldn’t get anything through the Republicans, except this $900 billion level.”

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