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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans rejected a new coronavirus aid bill from House Democrats Tuesday, putting Congress at a standstill that is unlikely to end anytime soon, as 33.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Republicans say it is too soon to tell what, if any, additional relief is needed as the pandemic continues, but there is one key thing they want: to protect businesses against lawsuits from employees who get sick.
Republicans dismissed the new $3 trillion aid bill drafted by Democrats as “dead on arrival” Tuesday. The 1,815-page bill includes another round of up to $1,200 direct cash payments to most people, $200 billion in “hazard pay” for essential workers, and over $900 billion for state and local governments.
Republicans called it a messaging bill — a Democratic wish list that was not negotiated and has no chance to pass. But Republicans have their own legislative wish: liability reforms to shield businesses from lawsuits if their employees contract COVID-19. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday the liability shields are “so essential” in reopening the economy.
McConnell said Republicans will insist on doing “narrowly targeted legislation,” while Democrats want a broad suite of reforms that include funding for coronavirus testing and tracing, funding to keep the US Postal Service afloat, and billions for food stamps and programs aimed at combating violence against women and supporting victims.
Several Republican senators said there is no urgency and they do not expect any coronavirus bill to pass anytime soon. The two parties have not yet come together to work out a deal, and President Donald Trump said last week there is “no rush” to pass more coronavirus aid. Instead, both parties are taking to the media and the public to fight for leverage.
McConnell refused to take a position on specific parts of the Democrat bill, such as more direct payments to Americans or hazard pay for essential workers. Instead, he targeted his pitch for liability shields to parents, saying the protections will be essential for schools and universities to open in the fall. “This is not a time for aspirational legislation, this is a time for practical response to the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wouldn’t entertain the question of whether his caucus would accept liability shields in exchange for some Democrat priorities. “We have people starving,” said Schumer. “We have people being kicked out of their homes and he’s worried about a big businessman being sued because he’s let one of his workers be susceptible to COVID? Come on.”
Democrats are attempting to compare Trump and McConnell to Herbert Hoover failing to react to the Great Depression. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the coronavirus pandemic “the biggest catastrophe in our nation’s history.”
The House plans to try Friday to pass its bill, which would also extend the $600-per-week federal top-up of unemployment insurance benefits through the end of the year. That program was passed as part of the last major coronavirus relief package, the CARES Act, but is currently set to expire at the end of July.
The bill would also provide $75 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, plus $3.6 billion to the states to implement safety measures and additional mail-in ballots for the November federal election. It would establish a $75 billion homeowner relief fund that would allow states to help pay housing costs such as mortgage payments and property taxes. Another $75 billion program would help homeowners afford costs such as mortgage payments and property taxes. And it would extend student loan relief to borrowers with federal loans that were left out of the CARES Act and require the Department of Education to make some payments on behalf of borrowers with private student loans.
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