WASHINGTON — Even in absentia, House Democrats are seeking to drive the debate on the fifth coronavirus response bill, promising to produce a mega-package stuffed with Democratic priorities despite a chorus of Republicans voicing hesitation about more spending.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi promises that the Democratic-controlled House will deliver legislation to help state and local governments through the COVID-19 crisis, along with additional money for direct payments to individuals, unemployment insurance and a third installment of aid to small businesses. The amount of funding is to be determined.
The California Democrat is leading the way as Democrats fashion a sweeping package that is expected to be unveiled soon even as the House stays closed while the Senate is open in the pandemic. On the other side of the Capitol, Republicans controlling the Senate face internal divisions over spending and how ambitious to be in the upcoming round to respond to Depression-era jobless levels.
The contours of the next package are taking shape despite Republican resistance to more spending and a deepening debate over how best to confront the pandemic and its economic devastation. Some Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and a group of GOP governors want to be more generous to states confronting furloughs and cuts to services as revenues plummet and unemployment insurance and other costs spike.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday it’s time to push “pause” on more aid legislation — even as he repeated a “red line” demand that any new aid package include liability protections for hospitals, health care providers and businesses operating and reopening.
McConnell and other Republicans, however, ducked the chance to endorse President Donald Trump’s demand for a cut to Social Security payroll taxes as a salve for the economy. Many lawmakers think the payroll tax cut is a bad idea because it only boosts paychecks but doesn’t help people thrown out of a job.
“I’ve never thought that really would be very effective,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She said she’s working with a bipartisan, bicameral group on a state and local aid package.
Trump is encouraging states to reopen and Republicans hope the gradual comeback will kick-start the economy, reducing the pressure for more pricey aid.
Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday with a repackaged set of demands.
“Well run States should not be bailing out poorly run States, using CoronaVirus as the excuse! The elimination of Sanctuary Cities, Payroll Taxes, and perhaps Capital Gains Taxes, must be put on the table,” Trump tweeted.
Romney on Tuesday urged his colleagues to pass additional state aid, with a chart titled “Blue states aren’t the only ones who are screwed,” based on Moody’s Analytics data showing Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Kansas, and Kentucky competing with New York and New Jersey and the states facing the worst revenue shortfalls.
Details on the package are a ways away, but it’s likely to be anchored by money for state and local governments, including smaller cities left out in last month’s massive relief bill. Business interests are pushing hard for additional operating subsidies and relief from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
Having reconvened this week, Senate Republicans are trying to set the terms of debate, frustrated by a negotiating dynamic on previous bills that empowered Democrats and sent costs spiraling. But they’re divided among themselves and reluctant to unleash federal funds beyond the nearly $3 trillion Congress has already approved for virus relief.
“I just don’t think we need to act as quite urgently,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters at the Capitol. But Cornyn, who is up for reelection this year, and other rank-and-file Republicans promise there will be further coronavirus legislation.
Ultimately, the legislation is likely to be shaped most by a familiar quartet of congressional leaders including Pelosi and McConnell and top Trump administration officials like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But getting talks to critical mass can be a tricky, arduous process given the web of rivalries and internal party considerations involved. Trump’s political fortunes and a spate of bad GOP polling adds new uncertainty.
For her part, Pelosi recognizes that any bill drafted by Democrats will need more thorough culling than early Democratic efforts, which came under GOP attack for easy-to-criticize items like aid to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and material taken from the so-called Green New Deal.
“I think all of us are going to get our papers graded in November based on how we responded. This is going to be the dominant issue in every election in the country,” Cornyn said.
A freshman Republican senator, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, said: “If we enter a long-term recession or depression, the concerns we have about deficit spending now are going to look like a walk in the park.”
One idea gaining traction among Republicans is to allow greater flexibility on $150 billion in aid that’s already been delivered to states and larger cities. That money is supposed to be used to pay for COVID-19 response, but governors in some states won’t be able to use it all for that purpose and want to use it to make up for revenues lost as the country slides into recession.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
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