Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at a news conference Wednesday. (Associated Press)
The congressional stalemate over a new coronavirus relief package grew further entrenched Thursday as Senate Democrats blocked a slimmed-down Republican proposal that they deemed “emaciated” because it did not include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans, assistance for state governments and other economic aid.
Now prospects for any bipartisan agreement on another relief bill before the November election look dim. Negotiations between House Democrats and the White House remain stalled, with Republicans rallying around a $500-billion proposal and Democrats insisting at least $2.2 trillion is needed.
“I don’t think that it will happen because there is such a wide difference,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), expressing an outlook shared by several other senators this week. “There could be a chance for [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Sen. Charles E.] Schumer and the White House to work something out, and every day that you get closer to the election, there is probably less likelihood of that.”
Democrats blocked the GOP plan Thursday. All Republicans except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supported moving ahead on the GOP bill, and all Democrats voted against. But the 52-47 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), currently on the campaign trail as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, was absent.
The Republican proposal did not provide direct payments to individuals or funding for state and local governments, two top Democratic demands. It also offered only $300 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits, half of what Democrats wanted.
The GOP bill had dramatically less than what Republicans had offered just a few weeks ago, another sign that the parties were moving further apart, not closer together.
Both sides provided funding for schools and child-care centers, although at different levels. The GOP plan also included a new round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses and liability protection against COVID-related lawsuits.
With an 8.4% unemployment rate in August and the economy still 11.5 million jobs short of where it was before the pandemic, failure by Congress to act could be politically harmful to the lawmakers running for reelection this fall, particularly in regions of the country where joblessness is the highest.
Many Americans have been hopeful that there would be another round of $1,200 checks and an extension of the $600 a week in enhanced federal unemployment benefits that expired in late July.
Weeks ago, there appeared to be bipartisan interest in a new round of payments to individuals. House Democrats included checks in their bill in May, and Senate Republicans included them in their July plan. But optimism evaporated over the summer months as Republicans grew increasingly skeptical of further adding to the national debt to respond to the pandemic.
The two parties are now far apart on how much to spend on a deal. House Democrats approved a $3.4-trillion bill in May, and Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has said they won’t approve a bill that is less than $2.2 trillion. Senate Republicans have rallied around the $500-billion bill, and many are skeptical of spending anywhere close to $1 trillion.
Both sides accuse each other of playing politics.
“Congress isn’t going to pass more #Covid_19 relief before the election,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter. “The biggest reason why is Speaker Pelosi & Senator Schumer believe Trump & the GOP will be blamed for the pain doing nothing will cause & that will help them win the White House & Senate in November.”
Democrats say Republicans spent months dawdling and are not taking the scope of the problem seriously. They said they’re unwilling to pass a minimal bill when a bigger one is needed.
“It’s insufficient. It’s completely inadequate. It does not help renters keep a roof over their heads or American families put food on the table,” said Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“Let’s not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem,” Pelosi said, dismissing the latest GOP proposal as a stunt. “I think that McConnell is being his cynical self by saying: I’ll just put something on there and it will look like we’re trying to do something,” she said.
There is still a slim chance that lawmakers could put a deal together, and Pelosi rejected the notion that a relief bill is dead until after the election.
Over the summer, many thought that a coronavirus relief package could be tacked onto a spending bill to fund the government, which needs to be approved by the end of the month to avert a government shutdown. But both Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin have said they don’t want to tie the two together, presumably because it would increase the risk of an unpopular shutdown.