As novel coronavirus cases rise around the country and deadlines loom to extend economic lifeline programs created in the wake of the pandemic, congressional leaders are still far from agreement on an overall price tag for the next relief bill or what should be in it. Key jobless benefits run out at the end of the month, leaving lawmakers just 11 days to act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at an event on Thursday in his home state he expects to unveil the outlines of his conference's bill next week, which two senior GOP aides said will come in at roughly $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derided that sum as far too little, pointing to her chamber's passage of a more than $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill two months ago while adding that she thought the opposition party would eventually cave.
"I have no doubt they will come around," Peolsi said in a Bloomberg interview. "In the beginning they said, 'No, we have spent enough money.' Now, they're at $1.3 trillion. That's not enough. We have $3.4 trillion."
But the two sides remain far apart in several key areas.
Senate Democrats have insisted on the House-passed bill that includes aid for front-line workers, state and local governments, and more money for hospitals, testing, schools, nutrition and housing assistance. Senate Democrats are seeking to add an additional $430 billion for education-related needs.
And on Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and his caucus unveiled a $350 billion plan to target aid to communities of color, which have been disproportionately hit by the virus. The 10-point proposal would require $150 billion in new funds with the remainder from unspent coronavirus loan programs. It would be used for child care, job training, at-risk youth initiatives, housing tax credits, anti-poverty programs and more.
Outlining his bill Thursday, McConnell said four key themes will prevail: liability protection, schools, jobs and health care.
The GOP leader has drawn a red line on the lawsuit shield, something Democrats oppose. But McConnell was unbowed Thursday, saying the legislation Republicans will put forward will "cover the period from Dec. 19 up until about 2024, and it covers everybody: hospitals, doctors, nurses, businesses, schools, colleges, universities, K-12 (schools). Nobody should have to face an epidemic of lawsuits on the heels of the pandemic that we already have related to the coronavirus."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of leadership and chairman of the Health Care Spending Subcommittee, said Thursday that his piece of the bill -- which includes health care, education, virus testing and vaccine development -- was nearly done.
"We're close," Blunt told reporters, saying he and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Health Committee, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., have been working with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Blunt said members were still grappling with how and whether to incentivize schools to reopen while being sensitive to the resurgence of the virus in many states, but he indicated that funding would be needed, regardless of whether schools are open or students are learning from home.
"I'm undecided yet. My view is that schools are going to have a significant number of expenses that don't change if you're learning at a distance. Your faculty still has to be paid. An awful lot of the staff and administrators have to be paid, and your communication costs have to go up. I don't think it should be exclusively based on whether you're back in a school room or not. But I think it's likely that some of the funding will relate to that, because there are additional costs when you reopen these buildings."
McConnell, for his part, indicated that the decision was one localities and parents would have to make, a position that appears as odds with President Donald Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funds for those institutions that refuse to reopen amid the pandemic.
Blunt said he wants to see schools have "an easily taken, point-of-contact response kind of test, so that you can take a test easily and know within 15 minutes or so what the results are," a move that seems unlikely anytime soon given the testing shortages and lag time for results across the country.
As the nation's unemployment rate remains historically high, it seems certain lawmakers will continue expanded pandemic jobless benefits. But those benefits are set to run out at the end of this month, a deadline Congress is unlikely to meet.
Republicans have fought against a flat $600-per-week rate created under the original CARES Act virus relief bill, claiming it is a disincentive to work for those who made less before the virus hit. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who would manage that portion of the bill, has indicated that the benefit is likely to taper off and not end abruptly.
Some Republicans, led by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, have pushed a back-to-work incentive payment, but economic analysts have questioned the workability of such a proposal.
And there is still a lingering question about whether or not to send Americans of modest income another round of stimulus checks, one of the more popular provisions of the last stimulus bill. Trump has expressed support, and Blunt said Thursday he was "open to it."
There is also a disagreement over how much aid to send to states and localities, though Blunt conceded that whatever amount is added to the previously appropriated $150 billion would likely contain the flexibility in spending many governors and mayors have pleaded for. Many have faced rising deficits, but have been unable to use federal aid due to restrictions built into the previous relief bill, with Republicans fearing a use of aid to pay off state pension funds that have been in the red for years.
The one area where there is far more agreement is aid to small businesses crushed by the recession.
The popular Paycheck Protection Program, which was renewed until Aug. 8, is likely to be reformed to target the smallest of businesses, in particular minority and women-owned businesses with low interest, forgivable loans designed to help owners retain employees through the pandemic. But many businesses have requested a chance to apply for a second PPP loan, and it is unclear if Republicans will approve such a move as it would swell the overall price tag of the bill.
The total size of the next package is sure to be a major roadblock to negotiations. And while bipartisan talks have been happening at the member level, they have yet to happen on a leadership level, complicating the timeline for completing work.
And no one is sure what Trump will want. He has, in the past, insisted on a payroll tax cut, and though some Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have said they support the idea, most do not.
McConnell said on Thursday he knows the path forward will not be an easy one.
Unveiling his plan mid-week "will just begin the process," McConnell said.
"Making laws is not easy. And even though the CARES Act ended up passing unanimously, this is four months later," he said. "We're much closer to the election. It's much more challenging politically to get everybody in the same place. So I'm not predicting that our next product is going to be without more -- dramatically more -- controversy and partisanship because of the proximity to the next election."