Richmond Times-Dispatch

McConnell slams brakes on Senate coronaviru­s relief package

He says senators won’t back $160 billion in state and local funds as part of deal

- BY ANDREWTAYL­OR AND LISAMASCAR­O

WASHINGTON— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hitting the brakes on an emerging COVID-19 aid package from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, saying Republican senators won’t support $160 billion in state and local funds as part of a potential trade-off in the deal.

McConnell’s staff conveyed to top negotiator­s that the GOP leader sees no path to an agreement on a key aspect of the lawmakers’ existing proposal — a slimmed-down version of the liability shield for companies and organizati­ons facing potential COVID19 lawsuits — in exchange for $160 billion in state and local funds that Democrats want.

A senior Democrat confirmed that McConnell’s position was conveyed to negotiator­s and was granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. McConnell’s office did not immediatel­y respond for a request for comment.

The hardened stance from McConnell, who does not appear to have the votes from Republican­s for a farreachin­g compromise, creates a new stalemate over the $900-billion-plus package, despite days of toiling by a bipartisan group of lawmakers toward a deal.

It comes as President Donald Trump’s top negotiator on COVID-19 financial aid took the opposite view. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reported headway Thursday on the

package from the bipartisan senators’ group.

“I think we’re making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said.

Deadlines, real and perceived, haven’t been sufficient to drive Washington’s factions to an agreement, despite the U.S. breaking a record-high 3,000 daily COVID-19 fatalities, and hospitals straining at capacity from soaring caseloads nationwide.

A one-week stop-gap measure to prevent a federal shutdown appears to have sapped some urgency from the talks. The short-term government-wide funding bill, approved by the House on Wednesday, needs to clear the Senate before Friday at midnight to avert a partial closure.

The next deadline would be Dec. 18, but House and Senate leaders say they won’t adjourn without passing an aid measure.

But many Republican­s have long viewed the state and local aid as a bailout they would have trouble supporting, despite the pleas for funds coming from governors and mayors nationwide.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is sending lawmakers home while talks continue, said Congress would keep working up to or even after Christmas to get an agreement. The new Congress is being sworn in on Jan. 3.

McConnell has proposed a five-year liability shield from virus lawsuits, retroactiv­e to December 2019, but the bipartisan group was eyeing a scaled-back shield of six months to a year. Labor and civil rights groups oppose any shield, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.

The Trump administra­tion is back in the middle of the negotiatio­ns with a $916 billion plan. It would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by the bipartisan group of Senate negotiator­s.

The offer has the endorsemen­t of the top House Republican and apparent backing from McConnell, who had previously favored a $519 billion GOP plan that has already failed twice. But Democrats immediatel­y blasted the plan over the administra­tion’s refusal to back the partial restoratio­n, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.

President-elect Joe Biden is pressing for as much pandemic relief as possible, though he’s not directly involved in the talks. McConnell, like Pelosi, says Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. The pressure to deliver is intense; all sides say failure isn’t an option.

The bipartisan negotiatin­g group is seeking to rally lawmakers behind the $908 billion framework that includes the $300-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and $160 billion for states and local government­s.

It also includes a fourmonth extension of jobless benefits set to expire at the end of the month, $300 billion for “paycheck protection” subsidies for struggling businesses, funding for vaccines and testing, and a host of smaller items such as aid to transit systems, the U.S. Postal Service and health care providers.

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