WASHINGTON — Congress made its biggest breakthrough in nine months toward passing a coronavirus relief bill Wednesday as Democrats agreed to essentially cut their demands in half.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate announced they would back a $908 billion bipartisan proposal as a basis for COVID-19 aid negotiations. But Senate Republicans have not yet agreed to the blueprint and it’s not clear whether President Donald Trump would sign it into law.
The plan is just a framework, rather than detailed legislative text. But it was presented as a compromise by a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers after months of Democrats insisting on a $2.2 trillion package and Republicans sticking by their own $500 billion plan.
The next two weeks will be crucial. Both sides insist it is imperative to pass COVID relief before the end of the year, but they have limited time to get it done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said any plan will likely need to be attached to an end-of-year spending bill that must pass by Dec. 11.
The bipartisan framework would provide $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits — half as much as the $600 per week provided in the CARES Act earlier this year, but also far more than out-of-work people have gotten since those payments expired at the end of July. It would not include any additional direct payments like the up to $1,200 checks delivered to many American adults this spring.
McConnell has remained tight-lipped about the proposal and has spent the week discussing a Republican plan with the White House. But any Republican-negotiated plan will almost certainly be too slimmed down to pass both chambers of Congress.
It’s not clear whether the $908 billion proposal can reach that bar either, but with the support of Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and some Republicans, it is the closest Congress has come to reaching a deal since it passed the CARES Act in March.
Many CARES provisions have long since expired. Other COVID relief measures such as an eviction moratorium and student loan relief will expire at the end of the year. Millions of Americans could start losing additional state unemployment benefits immediately after Christmas.
The bipartisan framework includes billions for student loan relief, housing assistance, and unemployment benefits. It also includes $288 billion for small businesses, including subsidies to keep employees on the payroll, and billions in subsidies for airlines and other transportation industries.
It would also include a short-term liability shield for businesses, preventing employees and customers from being able to sue if they contract COVID. This is a huge priority for McConnell and other Republicans. Because the framework is not laid out in legislation, there are no details of how this liability shield would work. Sen. Susan Collins said details are still being hammered out and they expect to release its full text next week.
Liability immunity is a huge red flag for progressives, who have denounced it as a “poison pill.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren questioned whether even a temporary liability shield would be acceptable. “What, (there’s immunity) so long as people are dying, and then the shield is gone once everyone has died?” she said.
The bipartisan plan was introduced in the Senate by Republican Sens. Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, and Mitt Romney, along with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, Mark Warner, Jeanne Shaheen, and Maggie Hassan, and Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. In the House, it is backed by Republicans Tom Reed, Anthony Gonzalez, Dusty Johnson, and Fred Upton, plus Democrats Josh Gottheimer, Dean Phillips, and Abigail Spanberger.