Bipartisan group of senators prepares $908B stimulus plan

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a stimulus proposal worth about $908 billion on Tuesday, aiming to break a months-long partisan impasse over providing emergency federal relief to the U.S. economy.

Congress has faced increasing pressure to approve additional economic relief since talks between the White House and House Democrats collapsed, first over the summer and then again in the fall ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

With negotiations among congressional leaders at a standstill, senators in both parties have worked together for weeks on a proposal that could break the logjam. Several centrist lawmakers in the Senate—including Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Mark Warner, D-Va., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Susan Collins, R-Maine—held a news conference Tuesday morning to push their proposal as a template for legislation that could pass Congress as the economy faces increasing strain from a winter surge in coronavirus cases.

“Our action to provide emergency relief is needed now more than ever before. The people need to know we are not going to leave until we get something accomplished,” Manchin said, flanked by about half a dozen lawmakers at the Capitol. “I’m committed to seeing this through.”

The plan circulated by the bipartisan group is light on details but seeks to reach a middle ground on numerous contentious economic issues.

It would provide $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits for four months—a lower amount than the $600 per week Democrats sought, while still offering substantial relief to tens of millions of jobless Americans. The agreement includes $160 billion in funding for state and local governments, a key Democratic priority opposed by most Republicans, as well as a temporary moratorium on some coronavirus-related lawsuits against firms and other entities—a key Republican priority that most Democrats oppose. The measure also includes funding for small businesses, schools, health care, transit authorities and student loans, among other measures.

Aides close to the effort described details as fluid and subject to change.

The effort still faces enormous hurdles, and most congressional aides are skeptical that the push will succeed. President Donald Trump’s negotiators have remained at odds for months with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over multiple critical aspects of stimulus legislation, while Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were broadly uncomfortable with the amount of spending the White House pushed at times.

But the substantive efforts at a compromise in the Senate reflect growing agitation from influential senators against the hard-line stances of their respective leaders, who have struggled to reach another round of coronavirus relief aid as the economy continues to suffer under the weight of the pandemic.

McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have traded barbs, with McConnell on Monday accusing Democrats of “all-or-nothing obstruction.” Schumer said in a floor speech that “both sides must give,” but also trashed McConnell for advancing a GOP wish list in stimulus talks.

Some lawmakers have hoped that elements of a bipartisan stimulus deal could be added to the spending bill required to avoid a Dec. 11 government shutdown, although that could complicate the must-pass legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was scheduled to talk to Pelosi on Tuesday afternoon. They are expected to discuss both the must-pass government spending bill and stimulus efforts.

“I had a conversation yesterday afternoon as well as this morning with Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, myself and Mark Meadows. I spoke to the president this morning and updated him. … I’ll be speaking to Speaker Pelosi this afternoon about the government funding. … We all believe there should be targeted fiscal response,” said Mnuchin, who was testifying on Capitol Hill with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell.

Pressed on the coronavirus relief package, Mnuchin said he would review it. “I do think that more fiscal response is needed. I think what’s more important is what we can pass quickly on a bipartisan basis to target the most difficult parts of the economy,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden, who introduced his economic team Tuesday, expressed support for some form of COVID relief now and signaled to Republicans that more aid will be necessary next year after his inauguration in January.

“Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief to address these urgent needs. But any package passed in a lame-duck session is likely to be, at best, just a start,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Del.

A spokesman for Biden declined to say whether the president-elect supports the bipartisan proposal unveiled Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat, was involved in the discussions but ultimately did not appear with lawmakers at the Tuesday news conference. In a floor speech, Durbin cited disagreements with the group’s decisions, arguing that it should have excluded the liability shield, but said: “I’m still willing to work on it. … Let us not make the best the enemy of the good.”

Durbin called for the legislation to come to the Senate floor, despite his reservations.”I’m not happy with a lot of these figures,” he said. “But that’s what it’s all about, in this world of the United States Congress: You come together, willing to sit down and listen to the other side and, if necessary, compromise.”

Economists have warned of devastating consequences for the economy and millions of Americans if no stimulus deal is passed. A number of relief programs are set to expire at the end of the year. Twelve million Americans are on pace to lose their jobless benefits, and protections for renters and student borrowers are also set to expire along with a federal paid family leave program.

The White House has largely abandoned its aggressive push for stimulus since Trump lost the Nov. 3 presidential election. It is also unclear whether Biden will push Democrats to accept a smaller package, although some of his economic advisers have been adamant that a stimulus deal must be passed quickly even if it is smaller than what Democrats prefer.

The bipartisan agreement includes about $288 billion in funding for small businesses, including through the Paycheck Protection Program and other aid. It also includes $45 billion for transportation agencies; $82 billion for education; $26 billion in nutrition assistance; and $16 billion in health care, including to help with coronavirus testing and tracing, and vaccine distribution.

The effort was expected to leave out a second round of $1,200 stimulus payments, as a way to bring down its overall cost, even though Trump and Pelosi support it.

The measure faced early opposition from both flanks, with liberals opposed to the liability shield and conservatives opposed to spending more money to help the economy.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, criticized the proposal for leaving out another round of $1,200 stimulus checks. Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative group FreedomWorks, said conservative GOP senators probably would reject the measure because of its cost. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are among those who have resisted another spending package.

“Anything that adds to the deficit is a non-starter,” Pye said.

At the news conference, Romney stressed that he is a deficit hawk and that the proposal costs far less than the $1.8 trillion that White House officials pushed earlier. He also said the legislation could be partly funded by more than $500 billion in unspent money from the Cares Act, reducing the amount of new spending.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, spoke positively of the bipartisan effort and urged lawmakers to quickly approve emergency financial help.

“More will be needed later, but immediate relief is needed now,” she said. “That’s what the senators are talking about. We cannot wait.”

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