Updated 12/9/20, 8:38 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is back in the middle of Capitol Hill's confusing COVID-19 negotiations, offering a $916 billion package to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week unemployment benefit favored by a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.
The offer arrived Tuesday with the endorsement of the top House Republican and appeared to demonstrate some flexibility by powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But Democrats immediately blasted the plan over the administration's refusal to back the partial restoration, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.
The House on Wednesday will pass a one-week government funding bill to give lawmakers more time to sort through the hot mess they have created for themselves after months of futile negotiations and posturing and recent rounds of flip-flopping. Without the measure, the government would shut down this weekend.
President-elect Joe Biden is pressing for as much pandemic relief as possible, though he's not directly involved in the talks. McConnell says Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. The pressure to deliver is intense — all sides say failure isn't an option.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made the new offer to Pelosi late Tuesday afternoon, he said in a statement. He offered few details, though House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said it proposes the $600 direct payment for individuals and $1,200 for couples, which is half the payment delivered by the March pandemic relief bill.
Mnuchin reached out to Pelosi after a call with top congressional GOP leaders, including McConnell, who remains at odds with Democratic leaders over COVID-19 relief. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted as unacceptable Mnuchin's move to drop a $300 per week additional federal unemployment benefit to supplement regular state benefits.
The top Democrats are instead invested in the work of a bipartisan group take the lead in crafting a solution.
That group — led by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others — is seeking to rally lawmakers behind a $908 billion framework that includes a $300-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and $160 billion for states and local governments. It is more generous than a GOP plan that's been filibustered twice already but far smaller than a wish list assembled by House Democrats.
Details leaked Wednesday on less controversial elements of the bipartisan group, including a four-month extension of jobless benefits set to expire at the end of the month, $300 billion for "paycheck protection" subsidies for struggling businesses, funding for vaccines and testing, and a host of smaller items like aid to transit systems, the Postal Service and health care providers.
Negotiations continue on a hotly contested liability shield from COVID-related lawsuits brought against businesses, universities, and others that have reopened during the pandemic. The liability issue is regarded as a key to an eventual agreement that would pair the business relief with a $160 billion state and local aid package sought by Democrats.
Republican members of the group won't budge above the agreed-upon $908 billion price tag, which leaves no room for even the reduced $600 direct government payment to most Americans that is sought by Trump.
"We can't get our Republican colleagues above the $908 billion," Manchin said Wednesday on CNN.
"Right now we're targeting struggling families, failing businesses, health care workers and we don't have a stimulus check to every single person, regardless of need," said Collins.
Other key elements of a potential year-end COVID-19 rescue package are clear: Another round of subsidies for businesses that are especially hard hit by the pandemic; extension of regular state jobless benefits set to expire Dec. 31; funding to distribute vaccines and other help for struggling health care providers; and funding for schools.
A potential COVID agreement would catch a ride on a separate $1.4 trillion government-wide spending bill that has its own set of problems, including fights over protections for the sage grouse, the Census, and accounting maneuvers being employed by lawmakers to squeeze $12 billion more into the legislation.
McConnell had earlier proposed shelving a top Democratic priority — aid to state and local governments — in exchange for dropping his own pet provision, a shield against lawsuits for COVID-related negligence.
Democrats angrily rejected the idea, saying McConnell was undermining the efforts of the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators and reneging on earlier statements that state and local aid would likely have to be an element of a COVID-19 relief agreement given Democratic control of the House.
The $916 billion Mnuchin offer, the separate ongoing talks among key rank-and-file senators, and the shifting demands by the White House all add up to muddled, confusing prospects for a long-delayed COVID-19 aid package.
"We're still looking for a way forward," McConnell said Wednesday morning.
The Mnuchin plan resurrects direct payments that are popular with Trump and the public but that are disliked by many Republican lawmakers who say they are costly and send too much aid to people who do not need it. Democrats generally embrace the idea.
McConnell says Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. He had previously said he would not put any pandemic relief bill on the floor that does not include the liability shield, which is being sought by businesses, universities, nonprofits, and others that are reopening during the pandemic. This summer, he endorsed the $300-per-week jobless benefit but Republicans shelved the idea in two failed votes this fall.
For her part, Pelosi initially demanded more than $900 billion for state and local governments this spring, but the fiscal situation in the states hasn't been as bad as feared and Democratic leaders could be willing to accept a $160 billion proposal by the moderate group. Before the November election, Pelosi criticized a $1.5 trillion COVID-19 aid plan assembled by moderate members as inadequate but now is willing to consider significantly less as a bridge to additional help under a Biden administration next year.