September 27, 2020

Coronavirus Relief Bill: Republicans Eye Stimulus Checks and Billions for Schools

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders labored on Tuesday to avert a party revolt over the next round of coronavirus aid, announcing that they planned to provide $105 billion for schools, direct payments to American families and more aid for struggling small businesses as rank-and-file lawmakers balked at the proposal’s cost.

Even as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, divulged details of his emerging plan, expected to total roughly $1 trillion, President Trump had yet to sign on and Republicans remained deeply divided over several key elements.

Ahead of what are expected to be fraught negotiations with Democrats, Senate Republicans and White House officials were still fighting among themselves over how much money to devote to testing and the federal health agencies on the front lines of the virus response, whether to include a payroll tax cut that Mr. Trump has demanded, and how to address the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits at the end of the month.

It was an inauspicious start to talks on the measure, and top Republican officials privately cautioned on Tuesday that the coming negotiation, a wide-ranging election-year brawl, was likely to stretch into August, leaving tens of millions of unemployed Americans without extra help as Congress hammers out the latest recovery plan and the virus surges.

“We’re going try to get something done by the end of next week,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said after meeting with Mr. McConnell, telling reporters that he planned to update Mr. Trump on the day’s discussion. “That’s an important time frame because we want to get something done before the unemployment insurance expires. This is a process.”

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Updated 2020-07-21T11:44:22.798Z

But during a private lunch that Mr. Mnuchin attended with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, some Republican senators balked at the prospect of doling out another trillion dollars in taxpayer funds and bickered over what policy provisions should be included in their opening bid, according to five people familiar with elements of the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of a private meeting.

“What in the hell are we doing?” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, asked at one point during the lunch, arguing that Republicans should prioritize reopening the economy instead of spending more money. Mr. Cruz warned his colleagues that if the economy failed to recover, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, would win the White House and “we’ll be meeting in a much smaller lunchroom” traditionally reserved for the minority party in the Senate.

“I just walked out of a meeting that could be sort of a Bernie bros, progressive caucus,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, told reporters after the lunch. “I’m alarmed that we’re talking about spending another trillion dollars we don’t have.”

Democrats, who are pressing for a much more expansive, $3 trillion measure along the lines of what the House approved in May, said the Republicans’ disputes were standing in the way of the bipartisan negotiation needed to get the measure to the president’s desk.

“We have been united in our priorities; their delay is their disarray,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi after meeting with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows in her Capitol office suite along with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader. “We want to see what they’re putting forth.”

Several elements of the Republicans’ plan remained in flux, and Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House late Tuesday afternoon that he had yet to be briefed on it. Still undecided was how the bill would address the expiration of a $600-a-week unemployment benefit supplement put in place by the stimulus law enacted in March. Republicans have made clear that they intend to scale back the payment, which they say disincentivizes work because it is larger than what workers in some parts of the country earn in regular wages.

Also unresolved was the matter of a payroll tax cut, a priority for the administration but one that most lawmakers oppose. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, pushed back against the idea, arguing that direct payments to families, which would probably be sent out in October, would prove more meaningful to individual voters.

Officials involved in the talks said some progress had been made, particularly as Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows appeared to warm to the idea of allocating billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing and top health agencies. Administration officials had angered Republicans over the weekend by rejecting those proposals. Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, pressed Mr. Mnuchin in the lunch about the need for testing and later said he received assurances that there would be enough funding.

But it was unclear whether the White House would accept the school funding proposal Republicans were assembling, or insist that any money be tied to full-time reopening of schools, in line with Mr. Trump’s strident calls.

Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said on Tuesday that the $105 billion for education would include about $70 billion for elementary, middle and high schools, with more money available to school districts that reopen in the fall. Senate Democrats have put forward legislation that would provide $430 billion to schools.

“They’re going to have more expenses, transportation and petitions and different ways to have meals than they’ve had in the past,” Mr. Blunt said, adding that $30 billion would be set aside for colleges and universities and $5 billion for governors to use at their discretion.

Mr. McConnell, who said he hoped to release a final version of his measure in the coming days, doubled down on his insistence that the package include liability protections for businesses, medical workers and schools — a proposal that Democrats fiercely oppose.

“I’m going to introduce a bill in the next few days that is a starting place that enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators, probably not everyone,” he said at his weekly news conference.

“There’s always room for negotiation,” he added, “because the Democrats are not irrelevant.”

Mr. Schumer, however, said Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows only put forward vague ideas about what they wanted in a deal when they met with him and Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday afternoon.

“Before we can negotiate, we need to see what their specific plan is,” Mr. Schumer said. “They’re all in disarray, and you hear different Republicans say different things. We can’t negotiate on a vague concept.”

Jim Tankersley and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.