McConnell, White House to Discuss Relief Plan as Talks Slow

Republican congressional leaders plan to talk with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Tuesday about Covid-19 relief, as a separate bipartisan initiative confronts the same hurdles that held up previous negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not yet endorsed the $908 billion bipartisan proposal as a basis for talks, will speak with Mnuchin and Meadows, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, according to an official familiar with the plan.

A group of Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate have been trying to hash out a deal to provide renewed help to small businesses, extend unemployment benefits that expire at year-end and provide for vaccine distribution and other anti-virus efforts. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have backed their framework as a fresh starting point for negotiations.

Pelosi said Tuesday she remains optimistic about getting a deal but emphasized she considers it a bridge to another, larger package is proposed next year once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

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“Make no mistake, this is an emergency supplemental,” she said. “It is not a stimulus. It’s too small.”

Another round of relief isn’t assured. McConnell’s insistence on federal limits on Covid-19 related lawsuits against businesses has emerged as a key stumbling block in the current negotiations, along with state and local aid that Democrats want. Republicans have balked at the six-month moratorium on lawsuits proposed in a bipartisan stimulus package, saying it’s too limited.

The drafters of the $908 billion bipartisan proposal are planning to release a more detailed outline Tuesday afternoon, but without provisions on liability and state and local aid, said Sam Runyon, a spokesman for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, one of the lawmakers involved. Negotiations on those parts of the proposal are continuing.

McConnell’s Position

McConnell has continued to raise the same objections he had before Pelosi and Schumer indicated they’d accept a smaller pandemic relief plan, underscoring the difficulty of getting a deal by year-end.

“Drop the all-or nothing tactics,” McConnell said of Democrats on the Senate floor on Monday. He again called on Schumer to allow a vote on a smaller, targeted bill that provides extended unemployment insurance, small-business aid and funding for vaccine distribution.

Senators from both sides of the aisle concluded that the prospects for a compromise will come down to McConnell’s decision. Several GOP members have endorsed or been open to the plan, and top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said President Donald Trump would likely sign it. McConnell is engaging the negotiators even though he hasn’t budged.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get somewhere,” McConnell told reporters Monday. “But I have no report at the moment about how.”

Two Roadblocks

The Republican and Democratic negotiators continued to butt heads over local aid and liability protection for businesses. Republicans have blasted state assistance as a bailout for mainly Democratic areas, while Democrats have refused to give employers a shield from lawsuits over poor protection against the spread of Covid-19.

“There are different ways of doing it, different approaches to it, but ultimately it’s going to have to satisfy Senator McConnell because it’s been one of his lead priorities since the beginning of this,” said Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in that chamber.

Lawsuits have already been filed in multiple states claiming companies including McDonald’s, Amazon.com, and Smithfield Foods aren’t doing enough to keep workers safe. While some complaints will be handled by workers’ compensation claims, in some states that doesn’t cover ordinary infectious diseases and lawsuits likely would be filed in instances of gross negligence.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who is part of the group that pitched the compromise, said GOP Senator Lindsay Graham and independent Angus King are working on a new compromise on liability.

“Senator King suggested that we look at an affirmative defense from liability lawsuits,” Romney said. “That would be provided to defendants, such that they wouldn’t be subject to excessive liability claims.”

Time is running ever shorter to resolve these sticking points before the end of the year. Democratic Senator Christopher Coons said on MSNBC Tuesday that while he remains optimistic, he sees a “real chance” that the Senate breaks up for Christmas without agreement on a relief package.

Pelosi said Monday she expects a bipartisan stimulus bill to be included in the omnibus appropriations legislation to keep the government running into 2021. Negotiators are aiming to finalize that package next week.

The House will vote on a continuing resolution Wednesday to fund the federal government for an additional week, before the existing stopgap runs out Friday night. McConnell said the Senate would approve that “whenever we get it” from the House.

Spending Bill

The final hurdles on the omnibus spending bill include money the Trump administration wants for border wall construction and other policy fights, such as House Democratic moves to protect the sage grouse bird and and provide money for police anti-racism training.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said “this week is pivotal” for finalizing the spending bills. He said he talked with Pelosi Monday about that bill and told her “there are a lot of things in your bill that we are not going to take.”

Read More: How Bipartisan Stimulus, McConnell Plans Stack Up: Side by Side

Schumer blamed his GOP counterpart for stalling the compromise effort.

“The majority leader continues to insist that the Senate accept one of his partisan Republican proposals, each one of which has been sorely inadequate and each of which has contained poison pills” like liability protections, Schumer said Tuesday.

— With assistance by Mike Dorning, and Erik Larson

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