In an attempt to break the logjam on a COVID-19 relief package before Congress adjourns, a group of bipartisan lawmakers put forth a $908 billion relief package that seems to be a middle-ground between the Democrats’ $2 trillion and Senate Republicans’ $500 billion proposals from earlier in 2020. But while the agreement seems to split key differences, it has yet to secure the necessary backing of leadership, raising continued questions as to whether or not a deal may be possible.
The framework’s highlights include the following:
- Funding for state and local government
- Extension of unemployment assistance
- Modification of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) under the Small Business Administration
- Funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, testing and tracing
- Extension of student loan forbearance from January 31 to April 30, 2021
The deal’s release came as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered to drop the two most contentious issues in negotiations thus far — liability protection, and funding for state and local governments. However, this offer was refused by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Shortly thereafter Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a larger relief proposal of $916 billion, supported by McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), which includes $600 stimulus checks for qualifying individuals, funding for states and localities, and liability protections.
In contrast, the bipartisan agreement does not include a stimulus check, but instead an additional $300 per week in federal supplemental benefits to be given between December 2020 and April 2021, with no retroactive payments. It also extends the federal pandemic unemployment program for 16 weeks, which is set to expire otherwise at the end of December. Mnuchin’s proposed stimulus check of $600 would be paid for by cutting the $300 a week in supplemental unemployment aid.
While Congress has attempted to enact a subsequent COVID relief package for months, a deal has been elusive. Major sticking points have included the ultimate cost of a package as well as disagreement on policies such as aid to state and local governments and liability protections. As the pandemic has spiked, lawmakers have continued to express a desire to reach an agreement. But the limited number of legislative days left in the lame duck session calls into question whether one may be possible.
Details of the Bipartisan Plan
- State and local funding: The document refers to the topic as being “agreement in principle to provide $160 billion as the basis for good faith negotiations.” Mnuchin’s proposal allocates the same amount of $160 billion, with $100 billion to be used for education and school openings, but it ties the aid with liability protections.
- Liability protection: The proposal mentions liability provisions, but does not provide details.
- Unemployment assistance: The proposal would extend all pandemic unemployment insurance programs by 16 weeks from their expiration at the end of December. Federal supplemental unemployment insurance benefits would be expanded by $300 per week for 16 weeks, from the end of December into April 2021.
- Paycheck Protection Program and small business assistance: The Small Business Administration would be allocated $300 billion to allow businesses that have been severely impacted by the pandemic to be able to receive a second forgivable loan from the Paycheck Protection Program that was created under the CARES Act.
- Vaccines: Given the recent advances in vaccine development, the bipartisan framework calls for $2.58 billion for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine distribution and infrastructure needs. Also $3.42 billion in direct grants to states, local governments, territories and tribes would be used to modernize and establish robust vaccine tracking systems, and another $3.5 billion for increasing testing and tracing capabilities and capacities.
- Health care providers: The agreement would provide an additional $35 billion to the Provider Relief Fund (PRF); $7 billion for rural providers; and $1 billion for tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indian health organizations and health service providers to tribes, and it contains changes to and guidelines for the use of PRF money. The proposal also contains $700 million for additional research, procurement and medical supply needs. Telehealth additionally receives a boost in the proposal with $475 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program and $100 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for Telehealth and the Connected Care Pilot Program to purchase, maintain and refresh devices and services to veterans for provision of access to telehealth services.
- Rental assistance and eviction moratorium: The proposal provides funding for rental assistance and provides an eviction moratorium.
- Other provisions: The agriculture and transportation industries, the U.S. Postal Service and broadband efforts would receive funding under the proposal. Education, nutrition assistance and child care are included, as are loans and assistance for low-income and minority communities.
While the agreement represents a potential breakthrough and areas of agreement, the lack of an embrace by chamber leadership and the limited number of days remaining brings questions as to ultimate chances of success. Progress — or lack of it — over the rest of the week will be a key indicator to watch in the coming days.