Monday, September 28, 2020

House, Senate on collision course over coronavirus response

Apr 28. 2020
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WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders on Monday outlined vastly different priorities for the provisions they would like to include in the next coronavirus bill when they return next week, with Democrats seeking more wage protections for workers and Republicans aiming to insulate companies from employee lawsuits.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., released a statement confirming his intention to bring the Senate back into session May 4 and said his top priority would be "strong protections from opportunistic lawsuits" for health-care workers and businesses.

"We cannot get distracted by preexisting partisan wish lists or calls to paper over decades of reckless decisions that had nothing to do with covid-19," McConnell said, in apparent reference to House Democrats' plans to advance a massive new coronavirus rescue bill that would include a number of liberal priorities, along with aid to prop up state budgets.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Democrats on a conference call that the House, too, would be reconvening May 4. Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress might need to consider offering a guaranteed income to some Americans to help the country recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We may have to think in terms of some different ways to put money in people's pockets," Pelosi said on MSNBC. "Others have suggested a minimum income, a guaranteed income for people. Is that worthy of attention now? Perhaps so."

The comments from McConnell and Pelosi put the two parties on a collision course over their next steps to deal with the pandemic, setting up an ideological and partisan clash over the federal government's path forward as the nation's economy reels heading into the election.

A number of Democrats in the House and Senate have advanced proposals that would ensure a guaranteed paycheck for workers affected by the coronavirus. These include a plan by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, that would create a three-month federal guarantee for 100% of worker salaries of up to $100,000. Pelosi's comments suggested she was open to such an approach.

McConnell's statement endorsed some type of a "liability shield" that would prevent businesses from being sued by customers who contract the coronavirus, an idea that has been under consideration at the White House.

"Before we start sending additional money down to states and localities, I want to make sure we protect the people we've already sent assistance to who are going to be set up for an avalanche of lawsuits if we don't act," McConnell said in an interview later with conservative radio host Guy Benson.

"There probably will be another state and local funding bill, but we need to make sure that we achieve something that will go beyond simply sending out money," McConnell said.

"The whole country will be afraid to go back to work . . . if businesses are afraid they're going to be sued constantly," McConnell said, adding that this type of liability protection "is the one thing that will be a part of any new bill."

Pelosi's spokesman, Drew Hammill, dismissed McConnell's call for liability protection, saying: "The House has no interest in diminishing protections for employees and customers."

Congress has managed to overcome its partisan divides to pass four bipartisan rescue bills since early March, committing nearly $3 trillion to battling the novel coronavirus thus far. That includes legislation passed last week that spent nearly $500 billion to replenish a small-business lending program and devote money to hospitals and testing.

But lawmakers in both major parties anticipate that reaching agreement on the next bill will be much harder as Democrats push for even more aggressive spending while McConnell has said repeatedly that he wants to push the "pause button" on any more big spending bills for now.

The House will also begin oversight hearings on the coronavirus response next week, with committees meeting throughout the week in staggered fashion to create social distancing, Hoyer said. Lawmakers have been mostly absent from the Capitol in recent weeks, returning to vote on legislation but not conducting routine business or hearings.

House Democrats anticipate their next rescue bill will rival in size and scope the $2 trillion Cares Act that Congress passed in late March. They want to boost aid for cities and states, increase funding for nutrition assistance and raise financial support for individual Americans. Democrats are also considering other ideas, including direct assistance for housing, money for election security and vote-by-mail initiatives, hazard pay for front-line workers, child-care assistance, and more money for health providers and hospitals.

The debate is taking shape with many House Democrats eager to take a greater role in guiding the federal response to the pandemic. But Democrats' push for another big bill that would answer governors' call for money to prop up their battered budgets is running into growing resistance from McConnell and other Republicans who say it's not their job to help out states that were in rough financial shape long before the coronavirus surfaced.

President Donald Trump has indicated growing sympathy toward that viewpoint, writing Monday on Twitter: "Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?"

Political leaders are hunting for ways to address the economic fallout after more than 26 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in less than two months. The unemployment rate in February was 3.5%, but it is believed to have skyrocketed to close to 20% in April, and state unemployment assistance programs are overwhelmed.

Pelosi offered no specifics during her MSNBC interview of how a guaranteed income program might work. Congressional Democrats have also discussed sending a second round of direct checks to Americans to build on the $1,200 payments that are being sent out under the Cares Act.

Pelosi also advocated extending the period of loans that are available under the small-business initiative, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, to longer than two months. The bill Congress passed last week devoted an additional $310 billion to that fund, but the money is already in huge demand and could run out by next week. She also suggested the small-business program could be expanded to businesses with 1,000 employees instead of the current 500.

Pelosi's comments indicate the fluid and wide-ranging debate underway as House Democrats draft their next response bill. The centerpiece of the legislation is expected to be a massive infusion of cash to stabilize state and local budgets, which Pelosi has suggested could be around $700 billion.

Despite some divisions among Senate Republicans, including some who have indicated support for sending money to states or bolstering worker paychecks, most Republicans are aligned with McConnell in opposing bailing out state budgets or making another major funding commitment in the near term.



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