RE­LIEF PACK­AGE PROGRESS BUT TAX CUT HUR­DLE RE­MAINS

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION/WORLD - BY LISA MASCARO

WASH­ING­TON — Se­nate Repub­li­cans and the White House reached ten­ta­tive agree­ment late Wed­nes­day for more test­ing funds in the next COVID-19 re­lief pack­age, but deep dis­agree­ments over the scope of the $1 tril­lion in fed­eral aid have forced a shift in strat­egy.

Fac­ing a GOP re­volt, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell was pre­par­ing to roll out a “hand­ful” of COVID-19 aid bills in­stead of a sin­gle pack­age, ac­cord­ing to a top law­maker in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions. The leg­is­la­tion is now ex­pected as soon as Thurs­day.

A key holdup re­mains Pres­i­dent Donald Trump’s push for a pay­roll tax cut, ac­cord­ing to a Repub­li­can granted anonymity to dis­cuss the pri­vate talks. Hardly any GOP sen­a­tors sup­port the idea. In­stead, Mc­Connell and some Repub­li­cans pre­fer an­other round of di­rect $1,200 cash pay­ments to Amer­i­cans.

Mnuchin said the ne­go­tia­tors have agreed to an amount on di­rect pay­ments, but de­clined to share de­tails.

The rest of the leg­is­la­tion is tak­ing shape even as key Se­nate Repub­li­cans are re­ject­ing the over­all res­cue, which is al­most cer­tain to grow. There will be no new money for cash-strapped states and cities, which are clam­or­ing for funds, but they will be pro­vided with ad­di­tional flex­i­bil­ity to tap ex­ist­ing aid funds.

Repub­li­cans pro­pose giv­ing $105 bil­lion to help schools re­open and $15 bil­lion for child care cen­ters to cre­ate safe en­vi­ron­ments for young­sters dur­ing the pan­demic.

The cen­ter­piece of the GOP ef­fort re­mains Mc­Connell’s li­a­bil­ity shield to pro­tect busi­nesses, schools and oth­ers from COVIDrelat­ed law­suits. The bills will also in­clude tax breaks for busi­nesses to hire and re­tain work­ers, and to help shops and work­places re­tool with new safety pro­to­cols.

Still un­re­solved is how to phase out the $600 weekly unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fit boost that is ex­pir­ing, start­ing Fri­day. Repub­li­cans ap­pear to be set­tling on $200 ben­e­fit that would ul­ti­mately be ad­justed ac­cord­ing to state job­less rates.

The break­through on test­ing money, though, was key after days of de­bate be­tween Repub­li­cans and the White House, show­ing a po­ten­tial shift in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s think­ing about the im­por­tance of track­ing the spread of the virus. Repub­li­cans wanted $25 bil­lion but the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion said the $9 bil­lion in un­spent funds from a pre­vi­ous aid deal was suf­fi­cient. The two sides set­tled on adding $16 bil­lion to the un­spent funds to reach $25 bil­lion, sen­a­tors said.

De­spite deep dif­fer­ences among Repub­li­cans, Mc­Connell is try­ing to push for­ward with what he calls a “start­ing point” in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Democrats.

Ex­as­per­ated Democrats warned the GOP in­fight­ing with Trump is de­lay­ing needed re­lief to Amer­i­cans dur­ing the cri­sis

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, R-Ky. (left), rides the Se­nate sub­way be­tween meet­ings Tues­day.

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