WASHINGTON — The Trump administration dove back into Capitol Hill's confusing COVID-19 negotiations on Tuesday, offering a $916 billion package to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans — but eliminate a $300 per week employment benefit favored by a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made the offer to Pelosi late Tuesday afternoon, he said in a statement. He offered few details, though House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said it proposes the $600 direct payment for individuals and $1,200 for couples, which is half the payment delivered by the March pandemic relief bill.
Mnuchin reached out to Pelosi after a call with top congressional GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who remains at odds with Democratic leaders over COVID-19 relief. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to Mnuchin's entreaty with a statement that said they would prefer to let a bipartisan group take the lead.
The bipartisan group, led by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others, is seeking to rally lawmakers in both parties behind a $908 billion framework that includes a $300-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and $160 billion for states and local governments. It is more generous than a GOP plan that's been filibustered twice already but far smaller than a wish list assembled by House Democrats.
McConnell had earlier proposed shelving a top Democratic priority — aid to state and local governments — in exchange for dropping his own pet provision, a shield against lawsuits for COVID-related negligence. Democrats angrily rejected the idea, saying McConnell was undermining the efforts of a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators and reneging on earlier statements that state and local aid would likely have to be an element of a COVID-19 relief agreement given Democratic control of the House.
The $916 billion Mnuchin offer, the separate ongoing talks among key rank-and-file senators, and the shifting demands by the White House all add up to muddled, confusing prospects for a long-delayed COVID-19 aid package. The pressure to deliver is intense — all sides say failure isn't an option.
The Mnuchin plan resurrects direct payments that are popular with Trump and the public but which are disliked by many Republican lawmakers who say they are costly and send too much aid to people who do not need it. Democrats generally embrace the idea.
"Right now we're targeting struggling families, failing businesses, health care workers and we don't have a stimulus check to every single person, regardless of need," said Collins.
McConnell said Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. He had previously said he would not put any pandemic relief bill on the floor that does not include the liability shield, which is being sought by businesses, universities, nonprofits, and others that are reopening during the pandemic.
"Leaving here without a COVID relief package cannot happen," McConnell said. "Why don't we set aside the two obviously most contentious issues. We know we're going to be confronted with another request after the first of the year. We'll live to fight those another day."
Top Senate Democrat Schumer immediately rejected the entreaty, saying the state and local relief is sought by many Republicans, too, including some conservatives like Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah. Pelosi blasted McConnell's offer as an attempt to undercut the bipartisan group whose framework she supports as a foundation for the negotiations.
Pelosi initially demanded more than $900 billion for state and local governments this spring, but the fiscal situation in the states hasn't been as bad as feared and Democratic leaders could be willing to accept a $160 billion proposal by the moderate group.
Already, Capitol Hill leaders are moving a government shutdown deadline to the end of next week, but progress is slow and key decisions are yet to be made. The House has scheduled a vote on a one-week temporary government funding bill for Wednesday. Without the measure, the government would shut down this weekend.
Separately, Pelosi and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., spoke by phone on Monday to try to kick start talks on a separate $1.4 trillion government-wide spending bill. That measure is held up over issues like protections for the sage grouse, the Census and accounting maneuvers being employed by lawmakers to squeeze $12 billion more into the legislation.
McConnell initially proposed a sweeping five-year liability shield, retroactive to December 2019, to protect companies and organizations from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democrats, along with their allies in labor and civil rights groups, roundly dismissed that approach as a danger to workers. And there hasn't been a wave of lawsuits.
"Contrary to the majority leader's dire predictions, there has been no flood of COVID lawsuits. In fact, quite the opposite," said Schumer, D-N.Y. "Far from the pandemic of lawsuits, there's barely been a trickle."