Republicans Push Scaled-Back Stimulus Plan as Impasse on Virus Aid Persists – The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Tuesday proposed a substantially scaled-back stimulus plan to provide federal aid to unemployed workers, schools, farmers, the Postal Service and small businesses, announcing a vote this week whose primary purpose was to try to foist blame on Democrats for a continuing stalemate.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, presented the measure as senators returned to Washington after a summer break that saw no progress in talks between top Democrats and White House officials on a recovery package to address the pandemic and the recession. The legislation — immediately rejected by Democrats as an inadequate response to the crisis — slashes by hundreds of billions of dollars the $1 trillion proposal Republicans had initially offered in negotiations, and is a fraction of the $2.2 trillion Democrats have said is necessary.

But Mr. McConnell, who has struggled to navigate divisions within his party over the scope of any additional federal aid, made it clear that he would force action on the doomed package, if only to escalate political pressure on Democrats to accept a much smaller plan than they have been willing to agree to.

“I will make sure every Senate Democrat who has said they’d like to reach an agreement gets the opportunity to walk the walk,” he said on Tuesday.

The bill is likely to fail on a test vote planned for Thursday — it would need 60 votes to advance — with Democrats opposed and the potential for some Republican defections. Even before Republicans released the bill text, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, declared that it was “laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support.”

The impasse amounts to a fraught political situation for both parties less than two months before the November election, with millions still unemployed and the pandemic continuing to spread with no promise of relief from Congress. Since lawmakers left Washington in early August, millions of Americans have filed new unemployment claims, wildfires and devastating storms have ravaged the country, schools have struggled to safely reopen and states have begun carrying out a series of budget cuts to remain solvent.

And Congress must soon confront the annual lapse in government funding at the end of the month, though both lawmakers and administration officials have voiced support for a stopgap bill that would keep the government functioning through the November election.

Updated

“I’m optimistic in the next two weeks that the pressure and the voice of the American people will start to have an impact on members of Congress,” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said Tuesday on Fox Business Network.

Moderate lawmakers in both chambers, particularly those facing difficult re-election challenges, are growing increasingly anxious over the gridlock and eager to persuade voters that Congress is addressing the toll of the pandemic, a dynamic that Republicans hope will help pressure Democrats to lower their spending demands.

While House Democrats approved a $3.4 trillion measure in May, Ms. Pelosi in recent days has told Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, that Democrats would be willing to accept a package of $2.2 trillion. (Mr. Mnuchin, for his part, has signaled that the administration may be willing to accept up to a $1.5 trillion package.)

It is unclear, however, if Republicans will all unite behind the measure. Fiscal hawks are deeply reluctant to embrace more spending after an infusion of nearly $3 trillion this spring, and the Congressional Budget Office said on Wednesday that government debt had ballooned in the 2020 fiscal year and nearly outpaced the size of the economy.

The measure presented on Tuesday, crafted after weeks of daily conference calls with senators and top administration officials, would provide up to $700 billion, Republican aides said, although about half of that money would come from repurposing funding already approved by Congress in the stimulus law enacted in March.

That law provided funding for the Treasury Department to guarantee loans made by the Federal Reserve to distressed companies, hundreds of billions of dollars of which remains unspent.

The Republican-written legislation would provide a $300-per-week federal unemployment benefit, the same amount that President Trump diverted from existing disaster relief funds through executive action last month, and provide that relief through Dec. 27. Democrats have pushed to revive the full $600-per-week payment established in the March stimulus law, at least through January.

The Republican plan would also include liability protections for hospitals, businesses and schools operating during the pandemic, and would forgive a $10 billion loan given to the Postal Service in previous relief legislation. It would revive the lapsed Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal loan program for small businesses, and provide $20 billion for farmers, $105 billion for schools, $31 billion for the development and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, and $16 billion for testing.

Republican leaders also agreed to include a tax credit championed by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, to reimburse donations to scholarship funds that help pay for private school tuition and other expenses. With some bipartisan objection to the provision, the tax credit is not permanent, as Mr. Cruz had initially intended, but instead will last for two years.

The bill does not provide funds for another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans, which both chambers had included in their opening offers, or offer any additional funding to state and local governments.

“Senators will not be voting on whether this targeted package satisfies every one of their legislative hopes and dreams,” Mr. McConnell said. “That’s not what we do in this chamber. We vote on whether to make laws.”

He argued that House Democrats, by holding a rare Saturday session late last month to vote on a bill to provide additional relief to the beleaguered Postal Service, could no longer object to considering a narrow relief package. (That legislation is not expected to receive a vote in the Senate.)

But Democrats on Tuesday dismissed Mr. McConnell’s challenge, with top leaders calling the measure “emaciated” and doing little to address the long-term impact of the pandemic on the nation’s economy. Mr. Schumer, charging that the Republican bill is “targeted to corporate donors,” was warned against impugning the motives of another senator on the Senate floor.

“What they have is so meager that it insults the intelligence of the American people,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “We know we have to negotiate in order to reach an agreement. We all want an agreement, make no mistake about that. But get serious.”

Nicholas Fandos and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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