Politicians in the United States Congress on Thursday remained far apart on the terms of a new COVID-19 economic relief package, making an agreement between Republicans and Democrats unlikely this week.
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said it appears negotiations may now slip into late December, or even next year, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected a key Democratic priority.
House Democrats have been pushing to include $160bn in aid to state and local governments to help close revenue shortfalls caused by a pandemic-related economic slowdown in the US, which has recorded the highest number of infections and deaths in the world.
But Senate Republicans have demanded a liability shield for companies and large organisations, such as universities that want protection against COVID-19 lawsuits from people who got sick or died.
Pelosi called McConnell’s proposal “an assault on American workers” and said she hoped the bipartisan working group “goes nowhere near what he is presenting”.
Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of a more than $900bn COVID-19 relief bill – but the discussions have often devolved into partisan bickering, leaving millions of Americans without aid to help them shoulder the pandemic.
But US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed optimism on Thursday, saying his discussions with US senators in both parties on the relief bill had made “a lot of progress”.
Progress, however, was slowed, and potentially further complicated by a one-week delay in the approval of a year-end, $1.4 trillion US government funding bill that would serve as a must-pass legislative vehicle for the COVID-19 measure.
Asked in her weekly news conference when COVID-19 relief legislation would be completed, Pelosi said she hoped it would be done by December 26 when enhanced federal unemployment benefits expire.
“We cannot go home without it,” Pelosi said.
US politicians are under increasing pressure to take action to address the COVID-19 crisis.
More than 292,000 people have died in the US during the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University, and more than 19.5 million cases have been reported to date.
Millions of people are still out of work and economic safety-net provisions are expiring at the end of the year.
Pelosi said she has “great respect” for a group of bipartisan senators who are trying to negotiate a compromise package of COVID-19 relief.
But she blamed McConnell for obstructing the talks after the Republican legislator signalled there are insufficient Republican votes in the Senate that key Democratic provision on aid to state and local governments.
McConnell’s staff conveyed to top negotiators that the Republican leader sees no path to an agreement on a slimmed-down version of the liability shield either, The Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed senior Democrat involved in the talks.
For his part, McConnell accused Democrats of being beholden to special interests, notably plaintiffs’ lawyers who do not want to see lawsuits prevented.
Trial lawyers are among Democrats’ most reliable sources of campaign cash.
Coincidentally, Democrats say they’d rather not pass *any* more aid (PPP, vaccine distribution, jobless aid) than limit the opportunity for the plaintiffs’ bar to suck money from our nation’s re-opening.
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) December 10, 2020
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said McConnell is continuing “to stand in the way of bipartisan progress” by imposing a “false equivalency” between the aid to states and localities and a liability shield for business.
“There is strong bipartisan support for state and local aid. There is not the same broad bipartisan support for sweeping corporate immunity,” Schumer said in remarks from the US Senate floor.
Republicans and Democrats have increasingly called for the COVID-19 relief bill to include $1,200 direct payments to Americans.
“I am going to continue working to make sure that every working person in American gets a $1,200 direct payment and we are not going to go home until that happens,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, threatening to hold up the $1.4-trillion omnibus bill unless that demand is met.
Separately, Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill that would provide $1,200 payments to individuals, drawing support on Twitter from progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s number two Republican, John Thune, told reporters in the US Capitol that a vote on a stopgap measure to prevent a partial government shutdown would be delayed until Friday.