Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, center, speaks during a news conference with the Problem Solvers Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Congress faces more pressure than ever this week to pass another coronavirus relief bill.
Lawmakers’ ability to break a longstanding logjam and send more help will play a massive role in how much more the crisis ravages Americans’ health and wallets.
Congressional leaders aim to approve both pandemic aid and a spending package before government funding lapses Saturday. Republicans and Democrats still need to strike a deal on both fronts with only days to spare before millions would face eviction or the loss of unemployment benefits.
A bipartisan group hopes to spur movement toward legislation that can get through the GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-held House. Lawmakers from both chambers plan to release a $908 billion rescue bill on Monday.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and co-chair of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus that helped to spark the deal, said he hoped the bill would help to shape a proposal Congress can pass this week.
“It doesn’t have to be every single word that we hand [congressional leaders] … but this is a clear road map for them,” he told CNBC on Monday morning.
Members of both parties have stressed the need to send relief before they go home for the holidays. What they have not agreed on since April is what help exactly the health-care system and economy need until widespread vaccination reins in a disease killing thousands of Americans every week.
In one sign of efforts to find consensus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke for about 30 minutes on Sunday about spending and stimulus. The pair plans to talk again on Monday, according to Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill.
Congress faces a challenge in trying to resolve several sticking points before Friday.
The parties have failed to settle disputes over proposals to give businesses immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits and send aid to cash-crunched state and local governments. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have threatened to delay passage of a bill if it does not include another direct payment to Americans. The bipartisan proposal does not include a second $1,200 check.
Republicans have pushed for a legal immunity plan. While they argue the provision would save small businesses from frivolous lawsuits, Democrats say it would endanger workers put into dangerous positions by their employers.
Meanwhile, Democrats and many Republicans have pushed for state and local funding as essential to preserve jobs for first responders and streamline the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, which Americans started to receive Monday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump have contended the funds would bail out mismanaged states. Bipartisan governors have called for at least $500 billion more in state and local relief.
Underscoring the disagreements, the bipartisan group in the Senate plans to introduce two separate bills Monday, Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., told CNBC. One includes the lawmakers’ legal immunity and state and local aid proposals. The other contains everything else.
“We can compromise on liability and state and local,” Reed said.
McConnell has urged Congress to pass a package without either provision and then address them in another bill after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. Democrats have insisted on including new money for state and local governments now.
“The Speaker believes, at a time when the virus is surging, that the need for state and local funding is even more important, especially given the states’ responsibility for distributing and administering the vaccine,” Pelosi spokesman Hammill tweeted after the Democrat’s call with Mnuchin.
“Health care workers and first responders are risking their lives to save lives and at the same time, are at the risk of losing their jobs without state and local support,” he continued.
Democrats have backed the $908 billion plan as the framework for a final deal. The proposal puts about $300 billion into small business support as independent companies struggle to survive. It would send $160 billion in state and local aid.
The proposal would extend provisions to expand unemployment insurance set to expire the day after Christmas. If those lapse, about 12 million people would lose jobless benefits. The plan would add a $300 per week federal jobless benefit supplement.
It would temporarily extend an eviction moratorium and fund rental payment assistance. The measure would also put $6 billion into vaccine distribution. It would also add funds for schools and the transportation sector.
But it would not include another direct payment. Many progressives in Congress have argued that, without more direct financial relief, the plan would not offer enough help to people struggling to afford food and rent.
Sanders and Hawley did not follow through on a threat Friday to delay passage of a measure that funded the government for one more week. However, Sanders warned that he would do so this Friday if Congress has not agreed to send another direct payment.