WASHINGTON - Top congressional Democrats met with White House officials Tuesday, as lawmakers and President Donald Trump face down an end-of-month deadline to pass a new funding package combating the vast health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
Tuesday’s private talks brought together Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting Chief of Staff Mark Meadows with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
The push for action comes with the country adding on average more than 66,000 new cases per day during the past week, and with federal payments of $600 per week to millions of unemployed workers set to expire at the end of July.
Mnuchin and Meadows have set an unofficial deadline of July 31 to pass the new round of funding. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed that possibility when asked by reporters Tuesday, saying Senate Republicans’ proposal would be introduced by the end of this week.
Months ago, the White House and Congress approved a package of bills totaling more than $3 trillion, with unusual bipartisan agreement. Now 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. Lawmakers will not return until September.
McConnell said he will not bring a bill to the Senate floor unless it includes provisions curbing the legal liability of businesses and schools if their workers, customers or students contract the coronavirus.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday there have been only a handful of lawsuits nationwide relating to the pandemic.
“There is no tsunami, there is no flood, but Senator McConnell is trying to capitalize on this moment of uncertainty in America to close down the responsibility of businesses to make certain they do everything reasonably possible to protect their customers and their employees,” Durbin told reporters.
Trump has also called for the measure to include a temporary end to the 7.65% payroll tax on workers’ salaries that would benefit those who are working, but not the more than 17 million unemployed U.S. workers who currently have no paychecks to tax.
Lawmakers of both parties have shown little interest in the president’s payroll tax cut proposal.
McConnell said Tuesday his party would focus on passing $105 billion in funding to return U.S. schoolchildren to in-person instruction when the school year begins in the fall, as well as new rounds of funding to address historic levels of unemployment.
“We’ll also be proposing a targeted second round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) with a special eye toward hard-hit businesses,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “And speaking of building on what worked in the CARES Act, we want another round of direct payments to help American families keep driving our national comeback.”
Senate Democrats released a proposal Tuesday that would send $430 billion in funding to state and local school districts to help them teach grade-school students in person, online or in a hybrid model. McConnell said Tuesday that Republicans were proposing $105 billion in funding for schools. Trump has suggested withholding federal funding to school districts if they do not reopen fully when the school year resumes.
“Bullying schools with a one-size-fits-all demand is not the road to get back to in-person learning. It is the road to chaos, more infections and would put families and school staff at risk,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, author of the proposal, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.
Meanwhile, 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 unemployed than when they were working.
One possible compromise would extend the jobless benefits but cut them to between $200 and $400 a week or limit them to the workers who were paid the least before being laid off.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there was no magic number for the amount of unemployment benefits, suggesting, "It is not irrational to talk about making sure the neediest are taken care of, and neediest is in the eye of the beholder. “
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 as Democrats have called for its passage.