US: Biden, top Democrats back bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill

Top US congressional Democrats back $908bn bipartisan proposal in bid to spark negotiations with Republicans, President Trump.

President-elect Joe Biden is backing a bipartisan move in Congress to pass a $908bn COVID-19 relief package before the end of the year [Leah Millis/Reuters]

President-elect Joe Biden swung behind a bipartisan COVID-19 relief effort in the United States Congress and his top congressional allies cut their demands for a $2 trillion-plus measure by more than half in the hope of triggering negotiations with Senate Republicans on delivering much-sought aid before the end of the year.

Biden said the developing aid package “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be the immediate help for a lot of things”. He wants a relief bill to pass Congress now, with more aid to come next year.

Biden’s remarks followed an announcement by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer in support of a nearly $908bn plan as a “basis” for bipartisan discussions.

The announcement appeared to be aimed at dislodging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, who has been unwilling to abandon a $550bn plan that has so far failed to garner broad support in Congress.

The Democrats embraced a $908bn approach from moderate Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat and Susan Collins, a Republican, among others. It would establish a $300 per week jobless benefit, send $160bn to help state and local governments, boost schools and universities and would revive “pay-check protection” subsidies for businesses, with additional bail-outs for transit systems and airlines.

“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 joint statement.

The statement was a concession by Pelosi and Schumer, who played hardball during failed pre-election discussions with the administration on a costlier bill. They had wanted more generous unemployment benefits and far more for state and local government.

Their embrace of the $908bn measure was a retreat from a secret offer the two Democrats had given McConnell on December 1, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The newly proposed bipartisan plan includes a liability shield for businesses and other organisations that have reopened their doors during the pandemic. It is the first time Pelosi and Schumer have shown a willingness to consider the idea.

Republican leader McConnell had dismissed the bipartisan offer on Tuesday, instead of aiming to rally Republicans around his proposal focused on small business relief and help for schools.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday that outgoing President Donald Trump supported McConnell’s proposal.

But Senator John Thune, a key McConnell deputy, said Republicans might agree to merge the bipartisan proposal with McConnell’s bill.

“I think there’s still time, although it’s short, to put a bill together,” Thune told reporters on Capitol Hill.

“Hopefully it will be helpful in us getting a deal done,” Thune said.

Any relief package likely would be attached to a $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill required to avert a government shutdown next weekend, Thune also said.

Talks on that measure are proceeding but if legislators should stumble, a temporary spending bill would be needed as a bridge into next year.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, speaking to reporters, raised the possibility such a temporary extension of government funding might be needed if there is no deal by December 11.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far declined to negotiate directly with Democratic counterparts on a COVID-19 relief package [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

McConnell aides did not immediately comment on Pelosi and Schumer’s move to support the bipartisan bill, the Reuters news agency reported.

McConnell had endorsed a $1 trillion plan this summer, only to encounter resistance from conservatives that prompted him to retrench. He has acknowledged that another infusion of aid to states and local governments, a key Pelosi demand, probably will pass eventually.

The Manchin-Collins bipartisan group proposed a split-the-difference solution to the protracted impasse on COVID-19 relief, hoping to speed overdue help to hurting Americans before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

It was a sign that some legislators are reluctant to adjourn for the year without approving some pandemic aid.

Their proposal includes:

  • $228bn to extend and upgrade “pay-check protection” subsidies for businesses for a second round of relief to hard-hit businesses such as restaurants.
  • A revived special jobless benefit, but at a level of $300 per week, reduced from $600 per week.
  • $160bn for state and local governments.
  • $45bn for transportation, including aid to transport systems and Amtrak, the national train service.
  • $82bn to reopen schools and universities.
  • Money for vaccines and healthcare providers, as well as for food stamps, rental assistance and the Postal Service.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies