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Pelosi, Schumer say $908 billion economic relief package should be starting point for talks


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that “we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by Senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.”

Before Wednesday, Democratic and Republican leaders had squared off for months, insisting on bills that the other side wouldn’t accept. Wednesday’s announcement by Pelosi and Schumer appeared to be the first time that leaders from one party agreed to back a proposal that had substantial support of members of the other party.

And the willingness to accept a potential bill totaling less than $1 trillion represents a significant step-down for the top Democrats, who had pushed for more than $3 trillion in new aid.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress and the Trump administration to pass immediate economic relief measures during the lame duck session of Congress, warning that the economy will continue to deteriorate before a vaccine is readily available. They have also signaled their intention to pursue a sweeping stimulus package after the inauguration on Jan. 20.

“The vaccine changes a lot,” a senior Democratic aide said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy. “This is not the end of the game here.”

Efforts to pass additional relief measures have stalled for months.

Democrats and Republicans came together to pass close to $3 trillion in economic aid earlier this year, but the bipartisan efforts fell apart after that as the election neared.

Amid negotiations this fall with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the House passed a $1.9 trillion bill, while Senate Republicans stuck to a package totaling about $500 billion. The White House at one point offered a $1.7 trillion deal, although that was rejected as inadequate by congressional Democrats who cited a number of policy disagreements.

The recent surge in coronavirus cases and additional layoffs at airlines and other companies have created new concerns that the economy could soon weaken markedly. Supporters have said economic relief is needed before vaccines are widely available in the United States, sometime in the spring.

The bipartisan framework was assembled in recent days through private discussions among a small group of senators as well as members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. The initial group of senators who helped design the plan included Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Angus King (I-Maine), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

Manchin, one of the group’s leaders, expressed optimism about the odds of the package passing on Wednesday but acknowledged that lawmakers were still trying to resolve disagreements over how to allocate state and local aid, as well as how to structure a liability shield to protect firms from virus-related lawsuits. Manchin also said the group hoped to release legislative text of the proposal on Monday.

“It’s moving in the right direction. It really is. I don’t think there’s anything else out there that can give us the relief the country needs,” Manchin said.

Manchin added of Senate Republicans’ more limited proposal: “We just know we need help, and the skinny bill doesn’t help. It leaves too much out.”

The “emergency relief framework” released by the bipartisan group on Tuesday is light on details but outlines how to allocate $908 billion for struggling small businesses, state and local governments, and other parts of the economy hurt by covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The package would fund federal supplement unemployment benefits of $300 per week for millions of jobless Americans.

That assistance would cover at least from January until the end of March for the unemployed, according to one person familiar with the group’s work. No decision has been made yet on whether the benefits would retroactively cover the several prior months during which unemployment benefits have not been paid. Manchin has pushed for the unemployment benefits to be covered retroactively from December, but the lawmakers have not yet signed off on that proposal.

The framework includes $160 billion for state and local governments; $180 billion in aid for jobless Americans; and close to $300 billion in additional support for small businesses, including through another round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program.

The proposal would also devote $82 billion for schools and education needs; $26 billion for agricultural and nutritional assistance; $25 billion in rental assistance; $10 billion for the U.S. Postal Service; $10 billion for child care; and $10 billion for rural broadband, among other areas. The measure would also devote tens of billions of dollars for emergency relief for transit authorities and vaccine distribution, among other health-care priorities.

The measure would not authorize a fresh round of $1,200 stimulus checks. The Cares Act, which passed in March, authorized one round of these checks for more than 100 million Americans.

The new bipartisan proposal also does not mention how to address some emergency economic programs that are set to expire at the end of the year, including a moratorium on evictions and unemployment benefits for gig workers and independent contractors, although congressional aides have discussed whether those measures need to be included.

Aides to senators hammering out the bipartisan, $908 billion framework have been in contact with Biden’s staff, according to one official familiar with the conversations, although the president-elect has been careful not to weigh in too heavily publicly, considering Trump is ultimately the one who will sign any relief package this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pushed for a smaller deal, and it does not appear that he is poised to support the bipartisan agreement.

He circulated a proposal on Tuesday that offered minimal aid to the jobless, in a sharp break with the bipartisan group that could represent an obstacle to a final deal. But Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), one of McConnell’s top deputies, suggested that the Republican-only plan — which administration officials say Trump will sign — could be merged with the bipartisan framework.

“They’ve gotten reasonable,” Thune said of Democratic leaders. “I think that would help us get to a solution.”

McConnell has also delivered an ultimatum, requiring any legislation to protect businesses from virus-related lawsuits. The bipartisan group did not reach a resolution on that issue, but negotiators have floated a temporary moratorium on such lawsuits to allow states to develop their own litigation standards.

A McConnell spokesman declined to comment on the proposal. But in addition to Pelosi and Schumer’s backing, the new $908 billion proposal was drawing support from senators outside the group of negotiators Wednesday. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she would back it.

“I think that we need bipartisan cooperation to get — to get a bill all the way through,” she said. “And I think that could be the difference between the two bills.”

Still, there have been months of stalemate on not just a broader coronavirus relief package, but on seemingly less contentious provisions such as replenishment of an overwhelmingly popular small-business lending program.

On Tuesday evening, the top Democratic staffer on the Senate Small Business Committee informed Republicans that Democrats were not willing to spend more than $200 billion in fresh PPP funding, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a GOP aide. The new demand struck Republicans as particularly inconsistent, considering Democrats had backed a higher figure earlier this year.

“It means we are going to have a cliff,” said Rubio, who leads the Small Business Committee. “We’ll run out of money in a couple months and then we’re going to have a bunch of small businesses out there left in the cold. That’s not something I can support.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat who has been negotiating with Schumer, denied that was his position, and added: “I’m very much in favor of more money, and I recognize we’re all trying to fit 10 pounds of sugar in a five-pound bag.”

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