Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before a Congressional Oversight Commission hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Dec. 10, 2020 (Alex Wong/Pool via AP)

Democrats squeezed as COVID-19 relief talks continue

Democrats squeezed as COVID-19 relief talks continue

WASHINGTON — Top Washington negotiators continued to reach for a long-delayed agreement on COVID-19 relief on Monday, but rank-and-file Democrats appeared increasingly resigned to having to drop, for now, a scaled-back demand for fiscal relief for states and local governments whose budgets have been thrown out of balance by the pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by phone Monday evening and continues to press for help for struggling states and localities. But top Democratic allies of President-elect Joe Biden came out in support of a $748 billion plan offered by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and hinted they won’t insist on a pitched battle for state and local aid now.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer to act. This should not be Congress’ last COVID relief bill, but it is a strong compromise that deserves support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. “We cannot leave for the holidays without getting relief to those Americans who need it.”

The message from Coons, a confidant of Biden, and a similar message from Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., came as a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a detailed COVID-19 aid proposal on Monday in hopes it would serve as a model for their battling leaders to follow as they try to negotiate a final agreement.

But the group was unable to forge a compromise on GOP-sought provisions shielding businesses from COVID-related lawsuits, a key priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican is pressing a lowest-common-denominator approach that would drop the lawsuit shield idea for now if Democrats agree to drop a $160 billion state and local aid package.

Pelosi has insisted for months that state and local aid would be in any final bill, but as time is running out, Democrats appear unwilling to hold the rest of the package hostage over the demand. Several Democrats appeared at the bipartisan news conference endorsing the $748 billion package.

“I found it interesting that they separated out the state and local and liability provisions. Senator McConnell had suggested that earlier,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Seems to me that we’re making some progress on it.”

Cornyn, a McConnell lieutenant, spoke after a dozen or so lawmakers unveiled two bills. One is a $748 billion aid package containing money for struggling businesses, the unemployed, schools and vaccine distribution. There is also $45 billion for transportation and transit assistance, funding for rural internet service and help for the Postal Service, among other provisions. The other bill proposes a $160 billion aid package for state and local governments and a modified liability shield that is backed by Republicans and Democratic moderate Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but it is probably too politically freighted to advance.

The path forward for their proposals — and for COVID-19 aid more generally — remains unclear, though Cornyn said the bipartisan plan has lots of “good stuff” for any yearend agreement.

Any agreement is likely to be forged in parallel negotiations between Pelosi and Mnuchin — closely watched by McConnell.

Outstanding issues in the leadership talks include a potential second round of direct payments to individuals, a plan for $300-per-week bonus unemployment benefits, state and local aid, and the GOP-sought liability shield against COVID-19-related lawsuits.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she hoped that top Capitol Hill leaders and the administration will use the proposals as the basis for a COVID-relief package “that is urgently needed by our struggling families, our hard-hit small businesses, our stressed-out health care providers, our overwhelmed Postal Service, our challenged schools, and so many others.”

Lawmakers also worked to finalize a yearend catchall funding package that will be the basis for the last significant legislation of the Trump presidency.

There’s a hoped-for deadline of midnight Friday to deliver the completed package to President Donald Trump, which is when a partial government shutdown would arrive with the expiration of last week’s temporary funding bill. But there’s no guarantee that the massive yearend measure will be completed in time. If the talks drag, further temporary bills could be needed.

Negotiations on the $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill are “essentially finished,” said a congressional aide participating in the talks. While details are closely held, “the status quo is prevailing.” That means Trump would get another $1.4 billion or so for a final installment to continue construction of his long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Republicans have succeeded in killing a $12 billion plan to break last year’s budget mini-agreement by using accounting manoeuvrs to pad veterans health care funding to accommodate big cost increases from expanding access to health care services from private providers. Instead, a different set of moves is being employed to provide for equivalent spending increases for other domestic programs.

The post-election lame-duck session is the last chance to wrap up the unfinished work this year, a goal of all involved, though they have been slow until now to forge the often-tricky compromises required to pull the measure together.

Pelosi has not thrown in the towel on her drive to obtain state and local aid, which was part of the almost $2 trillion CARES Act that passed the Senate unanimously in March. But many Republicans are adamantly against the idea now.

President-elect Joe Biden wants as much COVID relief as possible but has no direct influence on the negotiations. While he’ll empower Democrats after taking office next year, GOP leaders like McConnell are playing hardball and have forced Pelosi to scale back her demands. And while McConnell supported a $300-per-week bonus unemployment benefit this summer, he’s pulled back since the November election.

No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland displayed flexibility in an appearance on CNN on Sunday that Republicans interpreted as a harbinger of further Democratic retreat.

“The legislative process is a give and take and the items that I just mentioned are absolutely critical to get done, and although I think state and local assistance is critically important, the others are critically important too,” Hoyer said.

Andrew Taylor, The Associated Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Contributed)
Red Deer youth missing

Red Deer RCMP seek public’s assistance

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta justice minister sorry for saying feds, others rooting for COVID disaster

Blame and responsibility have recently been at the centre of debate in Alberta

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Northcott Rodeo Inc. Facebook page)
Alberta takes legal action against pastor, rodeo organizers for gatherings

Rallies and protests have been occurring regularly in Alberta

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coalition says users were shut out of drug decriminalization proposal, demands redo

Health Canada is working on Vancouver request for exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after the team defeated the Dallas Stars during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Analysis: McDavid NHL’s MVP front-runner in condensed season

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has 100-plus point season

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save as Maple Leafs defenceman TJ Brodie (78) and Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli (73) look for the rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Leafs and the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years when the 2020-21 NHL post-season gets underway.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Singer Celine Dion performs during her first World Tour show called Courage Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Songbird Uncaged: Celine Dion readies return to Las Vegas stage for 10-date run

Starting on Nov. 5, Dion will play 10 dates at the Resorts World Las Vegas theatre

An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)
Victoria Day event helped after war

One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1921, a major community event… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer: Independence is a one-way gate

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland declared in 2014 that the referendum… Continue reading

Boston Bruins left wing Nick Ritchie (21) and Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Chicago, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Most Read