In Fractious Washington, Debate Starts on New Coronavirus Relief Plan

U.S. Lawmakers returned to Washington on Monday, facing crucial negotiations with President Donald Trump over the scope of a new funding package to combat the vast health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. The number of newly confirmed infections has soared past 70,000 a day in the U.S. in the past week, and $600-a-week federal payments to millions of unemployed workers are expiring at the end of July. But Trump and his Republican cohorts in Congress and opposition Democrats have yet to reach a consensus on what new aid to approve and how much money to spend. Months ago, the White House and Congress approved a package of bills totaling more than $3 trillion, and there was unusual bipartisan agreement. But now, in what is likely to be the last coronavirus spending deal before the presidential and congressional elections on November 3, Trump, Republican lawmakers and Democrats are voicing an array of coronavirus priorities they need to tackle before Congress leaves Washington in three weeks for its annual August recess. It won’t return until September. White House meetingTrump met Monday with two top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, before they begin what are expected to be contentious negotiations with Democratic leaders. U.S. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, left, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows attend a meeting to discuss legislation for additional coronavirus aid in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 20, 2020.Mnuchin said the new spending plan would focus on “kids (returning to school) and jobs and vaccines. “We want to make sure that people who can go to work safely can do so,” Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. “We’ll have tax credits that incentivize businesses to bring people back to work.” McConnell, in an effort to boost the economic recovery, wants provisions that curb the legal liability for businesses and workers from claims that they have infected customers with the coronavirus. Trump has called for a temporary end to the 7.65% payroll tax on workers’ salaries, which would benefit those who are working but not the more than 17 million unemployed U.S. workers because they currently have no paychecks to tax. Unemployment benefitsMeanwhile, Democratic lawmakers want to extend the $600-a-week federal boost to less generous state unemployment benefits through the end of 2020 and provide more aid for state and local governments to weather the coronavirus crisis. Some Republicans want to end the extra federal unemployment payments, saying they are a disincentive to push employees back to their jobs because some employees have made more money while being unemployed than they did from their salaries while working. Some lawmakers have suggested a compromise, extending the jobless benefits but cutting them to between $200 and $400 a week or limiting them to the workers who were paid the least before being laid off. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks about legislation for additional coronavirus aid during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 20, 2020.McConnell has said a new coronavirus spending deal could total about $1 trillion, but Democrats want a much bigger plan, more in line with the $3 trillion measure the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved in mid-May. That package, however, has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate even as Democrats have called for its passage. In an interview on the “Fox News Sunday” show, Trump advocated for the liability protection for businesses. “Businesses are going to get sued just because somebody walked in,” Trump said. “You don’t know where this virus comes from. They’ll sit down at a restaurant. They’ll sue the restaurant, the guy’s out of business.” He also said police need immunity from coronavirus lawsuits.Trump also said he “would consider” not signing the measure if it does not include cutting the payroll tax. U.S. news outlets have reported that some White House officials want to cut new funding for more coronavirus testing, but Democrats and some Republicans want the opposite: more money for testing and tracing the contacts of those infected. Negotiations Even as Trump and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have laid out their coronavirus spending priorities, there have been no negotiations over a collective package. But with the unemployment aid ending and the number of new coronavirus cases surging, there is general agreement on the need to agree on a plan before Congress departs for its summer recess. Getting to that point in politically fractious Washington could be difficult, especially with the elections in just over three months. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said late last week he had yet to hear from McConnell or Mnuchin. “Senator McConnell is trying to draft a bill in his office,” Schumer said. “But he knows that a bill just drafted by Republicans won’t become law. … McConnell knows from the previous COVID bills that to pass a bill in the Senate he’s got to work across the aisle.”  

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