Michigan lawmakers are part of a bipartisan group taking a last-minute shot at compromise on a COVID-19 reliefpackage, as millions of Americans face the prospects of their temporary benefits expiring later this month.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, joined nine centrist senators and a handful of House members from both parties on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to reveal the $908 billion proposal, which the lawmakers said would help U.S. students, families and businesses through April 1amid the surge of coronavirus cases across the nation.
The proposal has the endorsement of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, which has 50 members, including Upton and Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan.
“Tell me when we’ve had a tougher time. I don’t know of it. We talk to our hospitals, and there’s a shortage of workers,” Upton said after the announcement.
“This thing is just burgeoning. We have to take action. If we don’t get it done now, for sure it won’t be until February or March. That’s way too late.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the compromise deal could bridge the divide between House and Senate leaders, though the bipartisan group said the White House and leaders in both chambers were aware of their efforts. Upton was hopeful Tuesday.
“We shouldn’t be going home and bringing an empty suitcase,” he said. “We worked much of the weekend trying to find the right sweet spot to get it done.”
The $908 billion breaks down to include $160 billion for state and local governments, $288 billion in loans for hard-hit businesses and restaurants, and $180 billion to boost unemployment insurance by $300 a week for 18 weeks, retroactive to Dec. 1. It does not include stimulus payments for families.
“This is a COVID emergency framework,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.“We have to do something before the next two weeks. We have to.”
The group has had no assurances of a vote on their proposal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Manchin said, “but I think the American people will put the pressure (on).”
“This is the only group that has come together in such a large gathering, and many more people (are) involved,” Manchin added. “We’re determined not to go home until we do something,” he added. “So it’s up to them to work with us.”
Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, said the package is “not perfect” but represents nearly a trillion dollars worth of relief that “our communities desperately need now, and we should pass it.”
“Our small business owners, teachers, workers, first responders, healthcare workers are doing everything they can to weather this crisis –– and they want to look to Washington and see that we are, too,” Slotkin said.
“There is no excuse for not passing a COVID relief package before the winter holidays. It is our fundamental responsibility as legislators.”
McConnell referred Tuesday to the bipartisan proposal as a “possible way forward,” noting that COVID relief is on the minds of many in his conference.
McConnell said he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy were in talks with the White House on what kind of COVID package President Donald Trump would actually sign, and he was vetting those details among GOP senators.
“We’ll let you know later, whether we think there’s any way forward,” McConnell said at a news conference. “We just don’t have time to waste. We have a couple weeks left here.”
He later said he envisions attaching a potential COVID deal to the spending bill that Congress must pass to continue funding the federal government beyond next week.
Pelosi indicated that a COVID deal is a priority in the last weeks of session, noting that she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had sent a proposal to McConnell and McCarthy on Monday night.
Pelosi spoke Tuesday afternoon to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said he would be reviewing that proposal and the bipartisan Senate proposal unveiled Tuesday.
“Additional COVID relief is long overdue and must be passed in this lame duck session,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said the bipartisan package is carefully targeted to help unemployed workers, struggling businesses and ailing state and local governments, many of whom are preparing to lay off employees.
“I happen to be a deficit hawk. I don’t like borrowing money. I don’t like spending money we don’t have, but the time to borrow money — maybe the only time to borrow money — is when there’s a crisis, and this is a crisis,” said Romney, a Michigan native. “We want to help people at this particular time.”
The bipartisan proposal also includes $45 billion for airlines, airports, transit and Amtrak, as well as $82 billion for education, $25 billion for rental housing aid and $26 billion for nutrition assistance. It sets aside $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution and contact tracing, as well as $35 billion for a healthcare provider relief fund.
The proposal would also provide “short-term” liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits on the federal level for 90 days, Upton said. The liability protection is “critical,” Romney said, though Democrats have generally resisted legal immunity for businesses.
“If you’re a businessperson, are you going to want to be in a state without it? States should get their act together,” Upton said.
Upton said he worked with Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, to boost the amount of funding in the package meant to enhance broadband access in rural and underserved areas from $5 billion to $10 billion.
Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey said he’s been in touch with House Democratic leadership about the group’s pitch.
“We’re hearing from members across the spectrum that they want to get something done before we go home, and I think that pressure is going to really get this to the floor for a vote,” said Gottheimer, who co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Because 75% of the caucus members support the package, all 50 members are committed to support it on the House floor.
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters Tuesday that $908 billion “sounded like a high number,” but that the bipartisan talks are a “good sign.”
“As far as their numbers, we’re not going to do a big bill, but we could do a tailored one that would be, probably badly needed, and the Democrats I hope would get on board,” Shelby said. “There’s time.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who chairs the GOP Policy Committee and was not involved in the talks, told reporters Tuesday he’d take a close look at what the bipartisan group was proposing, though he was pessimistic about the time left to reach a deal.
“I think $900 billion now will do a lot more good than $2 trillion in March. This is an important time to step up if we can,” Blunt said.
President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday there is consensus that action should be taken as soon as possible to provide “immediate relief” for those struggling economically as a result of the pandemic, mentioning affordable health care, child care, housing and rent relief and student loan relief.
He said the virus has caused “the most unequal economic and job crisis in modern history.”
“Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief,” Biden said in remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, adding that “any package passed in a lame duck Congress is likely to be, at best, just a start.”
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of Senate Democratic leadership, last week said she is open to a smaller COVID relief package to last perhaps through the first quarter of next year.
“Rather than looking at numbers, we ought to be looking at how we help everyone in the economy,” she told CNBC. “I would love to see a large comprehensive package moving forward, but if that’s not achievable it just needs to be comprehensive in terms of people, Americans.”
Congress last passed a COVID relief package in March, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Negotiations between Democratic leaders and the White House over another stimulus package had broken down weeks ago.
House Democrats passed the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act in May, but had offered to bring down the price tag to closer to $2 trillion to meet Senate Republicans half way. McConnell previously indicated a desire to pass a package closer to $500 billion.
Senate Democrats in October blocked a package of a “skinny” stimulus package proposed by Republicans, saying the proposal was full of “poison pills.”
That legislation would have boosted weekly unemployment benefits by $300, provided additional funding for vaccine development and contact tracing, and devoted about $100 billion for schools.
Democrats also previously rejected a $250 billion standalone extension for the Paycheck Protection Program to help hard-hit businesses as insufficient.
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