Rollout Of Republican Coronavirus Aid Bill Pushed To Next Week

Jul 23, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 11:44 am

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

Republican senators and the White House have reached an agreement on major elements of an upcoming coronavirus aid bill but have yet to settle on how to address unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of this month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced late Thursday afternoon that the administration is reviewing the "agreement in principle" and the legislation will be introduced next week.

The agreement on the GOP bill, which includes $105 billion for schools and $16 billion for testing, is meant to be a starting point for bipartisan talks on a final bill. The full package was expected Thursday morning, but haggling over unemployment provisions stalled the release. McConnell said key committee chairs would roll out details on Monday.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning for further talks, as GOP senators were still split on the size and components of the legislation.

Mnuchin said they are focused on a new federal unemployment benefit that would replace roughly 70% of the wages a person was previously earning.

"I think we are very clear on we're not going to pay people more to stay home than to work," Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. "So we're looking at something that looks like a 70% wage replacement, and we're working on the mechanics of that."

Those mechanics have been a major hurdle in the unemployment talks. Lawmakers settled on the $600 in weekly benefits that are currently available because they could not coordinate with state systems quickly enough. Democrats and Republicans said at the time that they would have liked to tailor unemployment benefits more closely to what people made when they were working.

McConnell said there would be some "temporary federal supplement" to unemployment aid, but he said the bill will also fix "the obvious craziness of paying people more to remain out of the workforce." He pledged more help would be in the bill for the 17 million unemployed, but said they wanted to "make sure it is suited to reopening."

Top congressional Democrats criticized the GOP for failing to support jobless Americans and dismissed the idea of working on some kind of temporary extension for unemployment aid while a broader bill was being negotiated.

"We cannot piecemeal this," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at her weekly press conference, adding, "I go to the table with a commitment for the $600."

The Senate GOP agreement does not include the payroll tax cut President Trump had been pushing.

Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee announced a separate portion of the agreement Wednesday night. The senators said the legislation meets their priorities of getting people "back to school, back to child care and back to working."

The school funding includes $30 billion for colleges and universities, $70 billion for K-12 education and $5 billion for governors to allocate as needed.

"There will be some money distributed to all districts," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "And other money that will be distributed to districts that get back to school in a more traditional sense."

Half of the money for K-12 schools would go to all schools on a per-capita basis; the other half would be distributed to schools that go back to a traditional school setting rather than using distance learning.

The senators also described funding for testing for nursing homes, child care facilities and schools.

McConnell indicated committees would introduce key provisions as standalone bills — a shift from previous relief measures that were unveiled as comprehensive packages. He also repeated his insistence that any new bill had to include liability protections for schools, businesses and health care workers so they are not "swamped by a tidal wave of malpractice suits."

The majority leader indicated that there would be another round of direct payments to Americans and that there would be a "sequel" to the popular Paycheck Protection Program, the small business loan program, making additional loans available to those who already received them to ensure they remained viable.

Democrats passed their version of the next round of coronavirus relief more than two months ago. But Republicans have struggled to unite over whether more aid was necessary as well as key benefits such as unemployment insurance, direct payments and the total cost.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There's been some solid progress on Capitol Hill towards another coronavirus relief bill. Republican senators and the White House reached a tentative agreement last night, but they're still working through some major details. This comes after a lot of debate over the bill and its price tag. And let's get the latest now from NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: So what has been agreed to between Republicans and the White House to this point?

SNELL: Well, we should say that this bill still isn't final, even though we expected a full bill to be released this morning. So Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, went back to Capitol Hill this morning. And before Mnuchin left the White House, he spoke to reporters and said they'd agreed on $16 billion in new money for testing. They agreed not to include a payroll tax cut that the White House was asking for. And the big thing that they're still working on is unemployment. Mnuchin says the $600 in weekly benefits people get now just won't be extended. Republicans want to do some sort of wage replacement instead. Here's what he said.

STEVEN MNUCHIN: People shouldn't focus on the number right now. What people should focus on - this is intended to be wage replacement. So we're focused on the percentage, which is about 70%.

SNELL: So 70% - they want to look at how much people are making now and replace that instead of a flat number. They're also talking about $105 billion for schools, $30 billion of which would go to colleges and universities and 70 billion for K-12 education.

GREENE: Though speaking about people who are out of work, I mean, we have new jobs numbers out just this morning that seemed to show bigger losses than a lot of economists were predicting. Could that really impact the conversation here?

SNELL: Yeah. You know, we know that Democrats want more than a 70% wage replacement. It's good to remember that Republicans are framing this as a starting point, though. So the 70% may not be where they wind up in a final bill. And the $600 was always kind of a Band-Aid for an emergency if they wanted to get money to people fast. Nobody, not even Democrats, wanted a fixed number for everyone. They just didn't know how to execute that because, you know, state systems were really out of date and they didn't think that the states were going to be able to communicate with the federal government to get that money out there. There's a proposal from some Democrats to do a full wage replacement, and it's a pretty popular idea, too.

GREENE: Well, for people who are out of work right now, I mean, can they count on Congress getting something done before unemployment benefits just run out at the end of this month?

SNELL: You know, it's really hard to see how they would get an agreement that fast because that would require Congress to have an agreement in place and a law passed and new rules sent to the states before, really, the end of this week. So we're expecting that they're going to try to get something done before they leave for their August recess, which is the annual time when Congress gets out of town and works from their homes. But that's, you know, 2 1/2 weeks from now. So they may have to pass something retroactively so that people can get catch-up payments so - if they miss money in between now and whenever an agreement comes together.

GREENE: Well, look at this broadly for me. I mean, you have Republicans who have overcome some of their internal disagreements and are working on this plan, but then they're going to start negotiating with Democrats, who, as you said, want a lot more money in different places. I mean, is there any sign that the parties will come together?

SNELL: Yeah, not just a lot more money - like, a lot, a lot more money.

GREENE: A lot, a lot - like trillions of dollars, right?

SNELL: (Laughter) Yeah, Democrats want $3 trillion in spending, and Republicans are talking about something in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. So this is a really big and really heavy lift for them. And, you know, Democrats have been feeling really confident that they can push for their priorities to be included because, frankly, Republicans don't have the votes in the Senate to get anything passed and Democrats control the House. So they have significant leverage here. It's just a question of whether or not the president will go along with whatever they agree to, which is always a wild card.

GREENE: Lots of action on Capitol Hill, and our congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is all over it. Kelsey, thanks a lot.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.