Almost a week after Democratic congressional leaders climbed down from their demand for a multi-trillion dollar stimulus package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to tout his own plan, endangering prospects for a compromise.
McConnell’s top priority—federal limits on Covid-19 related lawsuits against businesses—has emerged as the key potential deal-breaker. Republicans have balked at the six-month moratorium proposed in a bipartisan stimulus package, saying it’s too limited, and talks have stalled.
McConnell’s continued use of rhetoric that pre-dates the shift by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the overall dollar amount of aid underscored the risk of no further Covid-19 help by year-end.
“Drop the all-or nothing tactics,” McConnell said of Democrats on the Senate floor on Monday. He again called on Schumer to allow a vote on a targeted bill that provides extended unemployment insurance, small-business aid and funding for vaccine distribution.
Senators from both sides of the aisle concluded that the prospects for a $908 billion compromise that Republican and Democratic negotiators are hashing out will come down to McConnell’s decision. Several GOP members have endorsed or been open to the plan, and top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said President Donald Trump would likely sign it. McConnell is engaging the negotiators even though he hasn’t budged.
“I’m optimistic we’re going to get somewhere,” McConnell told reporters Monday. “But I have no report at the moment about how.”
The Republican and Democratic negotiators continued to butt heads over aid for states and localities as well as the coronavirus liability protection for businesses.
“Those are coupled together,” said GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who couldn’t predict whether the relief package will be enacted. “There’s either going to be none for both of those, or both of those that are going to be provided for. My hope is we’ll do both.”
Republicans have blasted state assistance as a bailout for mainly Democratic areas, while Democrats have refused to give employers a shield from lawsuits over poor protection against the spread of Covid-19.
Time is running ever shorter on getting a deal, which Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in that chamber, said Monday would be attached to either a stopgap federal spending bill or omnibus appropriations legislation that funds the government into 2021.
The House will vote on a continuing resolution Wednesday to keep the federal government running for an additional week, before the existing stopgap runs out Friday night. McConnell said the Senate would approve that “whenever we get it” from the House.
Negotiators have also been running into hurdles on the omnibus spending bill, including over money the Trump administration wants assigned for border wall construction. Dozens of other policy fights have sprung up, such as House Democratic moves to protect the sage grouse bird and and provide money for police anti-racism training.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said he talked with Pelosi Monday about that bill and told her “there are a lot of things in your bill that we are not going to take.”
Shelby also said, “this week is pivotal.”
Speaking about the Covid-19 relief proposal, McConnell said it’s getting “down to the wire.“
Schumer blamed his GOP counterpart for stalling the compromise effort. He and Pelosi publicly endorsed the $908 billion plan last Wednesday, after having made a new pitch to McConnell two days before. They previously sought a $2.4 trillion bill.
“We want the leader to sit down and negotiate so we can come up with a bipartisan proposal that can pass the House and the Senate,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. He highlighted that some economists are warning of a double-dip recession if Congress fails to pass a deal.
Members of the bipartisan team working on a compromise retained their hope that success is still possible.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said she was “hopeful.” She concluded, “It depends on what Mitch McConnell wants to do.”
Republican Senator Mitt Romney worried about an increased number of negotiators potentially bogging things down. But he said “we haven’t been told that there’s a drop dead date. We’re going to keep working until it’s done.”
“A lot of text has been written,” said GOP Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. The group is “still working through it.”