WASHINGTON ― As coronavirus cases continue to spike, and as a number of economic relief provisions expire in the coming weeks, congressional leaders are hard at work assuring voters that a stimulus deal is right around the corner ― any day now, maybe, hopefully, probably not.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that there was “no reason, none,” why Congress shouldn’t deliver another “major pandemic relief package” to help Americans through potentially the last chapters of the coronavirus fallout.
“We need a second round of the job-saving Paycheck Protection Program for the workers at the hardest-hit establishments,” McConnell said, adding that major parts of a previous relief bill have already expired and more will sunset by the end of December.
Without congressional action, nearly 12 million people will lose federal unemployment benefits the day after Christmas, a limited moratorium on evictions will expire, and student debtors will have to resume making payments on their loans. Congress created these coronavirus relief initiatives in March, when they expected the pandemic to last only a few months.
But, McConnell said, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have blocked another bill.
“The Speaker of the House spent the entire summer and the entire autumn literally gambling with the health and welfare of the American people,” McConnell said. “She gambled that if American families didn’t get any more relief before the election, her party would expand its majority in the House and Democrats could continue demanding the right to remake all of society along far-left lines.”
The truth, of course, is far less kind to McConnell.
The House has now passed two different bills ― a $3 trillion one in May, and a scaled-down $2.2 trillion bill in October ― that would have provided another round of stimulus checks for most Americans, continued enhanced unemployment benefits, and provided money to state and local governments. And Democrats point to McConnell as the reason why Americans are suffering.
Nearly two weeks ago, Pelosi and Schumer wrote a letter to McConnell asking him to “join us at the negotiating table” to work out a deal. And they say the $500 billion bill that McConnell has tried and failed to pass in the Senate falls far short of the needed government response.
The reality is Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on a COVID-19 deal, despite cases surging to new heights and job growth slowing while unemployment claims rise.
But for some reason, Democrats and Republicans are showing hope that a deal could materialize soon.
“I’m optimistic that we will have bipartisanship to put something together to go forward, because I do believe that many of our colleagues understand what’s happening in their districts and want to make a difference,” Pelosi told reporters before Congress broke for Thanksgiving.
Now, with a limited number of legislative days before the 116th Congress adjourns and a host of new members come in, Republicans and Democrats seem to be continuing their posturing, waiting for the other side to crack.
Democrats seem hopeful that, with daily cases worse than ever, Republicans will see the light and join them in approving more economic aid. The first round of vaccines are expected to be deployed at the end of December, and Congress could help expedite the process with another bill. They could also make life easier for hundreds of millions of Americans in the meantime.
But Republicans seem to see the situation in a different way.
With vaccines being deployed shortly, they suggest limited aid ― mostly to help small businesses.
There do seem to be several areas of potential agreement between Democrats and Republicans. They both support an increase of federal unemployment insurance and more funding for states ― they just disagree on how much extra money to provide.
“Both sides are going to have to compromise. The Democrats aren’t going to get what they want with their $2 trillion plan, and clearly, the so-called skinny plan that Leader McConnell put out is not nearly enough,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Monday during an interview on MSNBC.
Perhaps the biggest area of agreement between the two parties is that, if the other side would simply cave, then Congress could deliver another bill. That’s obviously little solace for the more than 12 million Americans who are currently unemployed, or the nearly half of Americans who have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.
On the other hand, the biggest disagreement has been consistent for months: McConnell’s insistence on a near-total ban of coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“We tried to implement common-sense legal protections that universities and charities have been clamoring for,” McConnell said of his proposal. Blocking medical malpractice lawsuits has been a long-term Republican goal, and McConnell’s liability protections proposal would prohibit unrelated medical malpractice lawsuits if a health care provider says its activities were affected by the coronavirus.
Since spring, McConnell has warned of a coming ”epidemic of lawsuits” that would force businesses, nonprofits and schools to close their doors for fear of getting sued over catching coronavirus. Shielding organizations from that liability, McConnell has said, would be his top priority in any additional relief legislation.
“There’s an army of trial lawyers out there ready to take advantage of the situation,” McConnell said in July. “We cannot get back to normal if we have an epidemic of lawsuits.”
The lawsuit epidemic has so far failed to materialize. According to a database of coronavirus-related lawsuits maintained by the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, there has been a steady trickle of COVID-19 complaints, but no big wave. Of the more than 6,400 lawsuits so far, only a small fraction are the kind of personal injury complaints McConnell has warned about.
McConnell has signaled that he would still insist on the liability shield, however, which is a total nonstarter for Democrats.
Democrats don’t seem willing to substantially come down from the roughly $2 trillion they want in a coronavirus relief deal. And Republicans don’t seem willing to substantially come up from $500 billion plus a lawsuit ban, though the Trump White House was at one time floating a bill that would cost about $1.8 trillion.
The administration, however, has largely pulled away from negotiations, leaving Congress to sort out a deal on its own. And while Democrats are hopeful that a Joe Biden administration could somehow break the stalemate, there are no signs that a different president would suddenly make Republicans cave.
If anything, Republicans have signaled they would be even more opposed to new spending under a Democratic president than they would under President Donald Trump.
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, recently said that fiscal conservatism was in the Republican DNA.
“I think spending, entitlement reform, growth and the economy are all things that we’re going to have to be focused on next year, and, yeah, I would expect you’ll hear a lot more about that,” he said.
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