Why lawmakers may choose a more targeted approach for the second round of COVID stimulus

September 16, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC

The coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in several states across the country, and while new cases have declined since a late-July spike, millions remain unemployed. The agenda for Washington has been a new COVID relief bill—a follow-up to March’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act—ahead of a Congressional recess in October and the presidential election the following month.

Another sweeping COVID stimulus is unlikely to happen before then, however. The latest attempt—a $650 billion Republican “skinny” bill, slimmed down from the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by House Democrats in May before stalling in the Senate—was shot down by Senate Democrats last week. The two parties can’t see eye to eye on figures for weekly federal unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and funding for state and local aid.

The clock is ticking for lawmakers. Hundreds of people per day continue to die from COVID-19. And as the country inches closer to the presidential election, the pandemic and any response or lack thereof could be a key issue for voters in November. House Democrats are wary of returning to their districts without passing any sort of bill, Politico reported last week. Meanwhile, a Republican refusal to compromise could reflect poorly on President Donald Trump and treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is the White House’s top negotiator for a relief bill.

“I think [the White House] will come back again,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on a private caucus call, according to Politico. “The weaker they are, the better off we are. And that means the more heat they get and the more that Mnuchin is able to persuade Trump, that if he doesn’t get something done here, it’s going to be certain that he won’t be reelected.”

A middle ground for both sides, then, might be a series of smaller, individual policies. They would allow lawmakers to pass, or at least put up to vote, targeted bills on unemployment, increased testing, and other issues. House Democrats in particular seem keen to get something done before the recess, though Schumer and speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi have urged Democrats to hold out for a more holistic relief package. Mnuchin, meanwhile, is in favor. “Let’s do a more targeted bill now,” he said on Sept. 6. “If we need to do more in 30 days, we’ll continue to do more.”

If the Democrats do go for the targeted approach, here are some policies that could be on the table.

Enhanced unemployment benefits

On July 31, the weekly $600 unemployment checks that were sent out thanks to the CARES act officially expired. President Trump then signed an executive memo on Aug. 8 ordering a $300 bonus to resume for six weeks, which will soon expire as well.

To counter this, Democratic reps. Scott Peters (CA), Don Beyer (VA), and Derek Kilmer (WA) penned a letter to Pelosi on Aug. 18 asking her to consider the Worker Relief and Security Act. The proposed legislation would extend the weekly $600 unemployment benefits for those who qualify “for the duration of the recession by tying continued enhanced unemployment insurance to the health crisis and economic indicators.” More than 115 House Democrats signed the letter so far.

A strengthened coronavirus testing program

While Pelosi prefers to do a comprehensive relief package, one policy she is said to be considering is a $75 billion bill that would bolster coronavirus testing and tracing programs nationwide. The proposed bill was authored by House Energy and Commerce chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). In the Senate Republicans’ $650 billion relief legislation, a proposed $16 billion was allocated for testing and tracing.

In July, a Rockefeller Foundation report featuring a bipartisan committee of industry experts, investors, scientists, and former federal health officials said that the U.S. should invest $75 billion to fix its flawed system of coronavirus testing.

Extension of the Paycheck Protection Program

Part of the initial CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program—which expired Aug. 8—granted loans to small businesses in order to maintain their payrolls. According to Mnuchin, a standalone PPP bill would be the “easiest” way to resume helping businesses.

Speaking before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis earlier this month, Mnuchin argued that a repurposed standalone PPP bill would garner support from both sides of the aisle and “pass with overwhelming support.”

Extended PPP was included in the Senate Republicans’ latest relief bill. It remains to be seen if it will be picked up as an individual piece of legislation.

Another option: a relief bill that lies somewhere between the Republicans’ “skinny stimulus” and the Democrats’ proposal

While representatives from both parties pledge to remain firm at the bargaining table, members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus are working on a bipartisan proposal that could fall somewhere between the Republicans’ $650 billion legislation and the Democrats’ current demand of $2.2 trillion.

The compromise offer was released Tuesday at roughly $1.5 trillion in total funding. The plan satisfies some demands from both parties, including $120 billion for enhanced unemployment insurance (at a rate of $450 a week over eight weeks), $500 billion in funding for state and local governments, and another round of stimulus checks at the same rates as the CARES Act, totaling $280 billion.

Eight Democratic House committee chairs promptly dismissed the proposal on Tuesday, saying it felt short of what’s needed. But as the Problem Solvers noted in their plan, there are “urgent needs facing millions of Americans.” The pressure is on for Democrats and Republicans to find a solution before Congress breaks in October.

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