Top Democrats Back Off Demands For Larger COVID-19 Bill

Dec 2, 2020
Originally published on December 3, 2020 6:58 am

Updated at 4:52 p.m. ET

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say a $908 billion coronavirus relief proposal should be the starting point for bipartisan aid.

It is the first time Pelosi, D-Calif., and Schumer, D-N.Y., have accepted any COVID-19 legislation other than the $2.2 trillion bill that passed the House of Representatives in October. But their shift to the moderates' plan comes after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., already rejected the bipartisan proposal.

"In the spirit of compromise we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by Senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations," Pelosi and Schumer said in a statement. "Of course, we and others will offer improvements, but the need to act is immediate and we believe that with good-faith negotiations we could come to an agreement."

Both parties are under intense pressure to approve further relief as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to surge across the country. Public health officials have warned the pandemic could worsen over the next several months, even as states begin to distribute the first rounds of a vaccine.

The bipartisan legislation includes $300 in weekly federal unemployment benefits for 18 weeks, $288 billion in fresh funding for the Paycheck Protection small business loan program and $16 billion for testing and vaccine distribution. It also includes a temporary block on pandemic-related lawsuits to allow states to craft their own policies on legal liability.

Senate Republicans have offered their own, much smaller legislation — costing roughly over $500 billion. Their latest proposal includes $332.7 billion for small businesses, $105 billion for schools, and $31 billion for vaccine distribution, therapies and medical supplies. It does not include direct aid for states and local governments, a key priority for Democrats.

GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, asked about the top Democrats' shift on the issue, said it was "definitely progress, it's a move in the right direction, and I think hopefully it'll be helpful in us getting a deal done."

McConnell has said he hopes to include some targeted relief in an upcoming spending bill that must be approved by Dec. 11. The GOP leader said Tuesday his goal is for Congress to pass something that has President Trump's support.

"Waiting for next year is not an answer," McConnell said. "It will all likely come in one package."

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A few numbers only hint at the scale of suffering in this country at the start of December. More than 3,000 Americans died from COVID-19 on Wednesday. More than 3,000 - that is more than the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks, and it is just one day of this pandemic - 3,000 in a day. Roughly 100,000 Americans are hospitalized from the virus. And, of course, millions of people remain unemployed.

With all of that happening, federal coronavirus relief is running out. And it's in this atmosphere that lawmakers are beginning to move towards some additional help. House Democrats, of course, approved around $2 trillion in extra spending months ago. Republicans, who control the Senate, wanted a lot less. But a bipartisan proposal has now gained some support.

NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following all this. Kelsey, good morning.


INSKEEP: I'm just thinking this through. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has said they need to do something. House and Senate Democratic leaders seem to like this bipartisan proposal from some senators. Why are they willing to move now?

SNELL: Well, those numbers you were talking about, the number of people who are affected - those are really important things in Congress. More than 20 million people remain out of work, and millions of people are at risk of eviction. Millions are at risk of losing unemployment benefits. And major programs like student loan and mortgage relief are basically on the verge of expiration. That is huge political pressure.

But Democrats also see a completely different negotiating and political universe on the horizon. You know, aides have been saying that since Joe Biden won the election that they could pass a smaller relief bill now and do more later. That is very different than what they were willing to do under President Trump, where they didn't really believe that he would go along with a piecemeal approach. They thought that perhaps he would agree to something small now and never agree to something in the future.

And Democrats I talked to say this $908 billion bill they're talking about is just a starting place. And they're really trying to pressure McConnell to negotiate up from his much smaller figure, as you mentioned, of around $500 billion.

INSKEEP: So they're saying they'll get what they can here in this lame-duck session and then see where they can go after January 20.

SNELL: Right, right. And, you know, I'm told that's a really big part of all of this for Democrats. You know, even if Democrats don't control the Senate, they think they'll have a stronger hand in the talks if they know that a relief bill will definitely have the support of the president. And they think that they would have that with President-elect Biden. And since that wasn't the case with President Trump, they say this is really just different.

You know, President Trump has been almost completely absent from these coronavirus relief talks. He sent his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to do almost all of the negotiating for him. And Republicans frequently suggested that they either didn't feel confident in his support for further aid or they thought he'd veto some measure. Democrats say Biden explicitly said any bill he - any bill they passed now would be just a start. Here's what he said yesterday.


JOE BIDEN: Any package passed in this so-called lame-duck session between now and January 21 at best is only going to be a down payment.

INSKEEP: Although now that they're thinking of it as a down payment, is any kind of down payment even likely at this point?

SNELL: You know, there really isn't a guarantee that anything will get passed. We've talked about these big figures - $500 billion and $900 billion. That's - those are big numbers, and that gulf is still pretty big. It's certainly closer than it was just a little bit ago, but it's still a big difference. And they're trying to get out of town ahead of the holidays, so there's not a lot of time to get something done.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the update.

SNELL: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.