The price tag for the next COVID-19 aid package could quickly swell above $1 trillion as White House officials negotiate with Congress over money to reopen schools, prop up small businesses, boost virus testing and keep cash flowing to Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday promised a new round of direct payments to earners below a certain income level, similar to the $1,200 checks sent in the spring.
“Regretfully, this is not over,” McConnell said after a private GOP lunch.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting chief of staff Mark Meadows spent the day on Capitol Hill, meeting separately with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others trying to broker a compromise between the GOP’s emerging $1 trillion proposal with the House’s $3 trillion bill.
The lunch session grew heated as key Republican senators condemned big spending.
Supporters of the package “should be ashamed of themselves,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said as he emerged.
Paul compared GOP backers of the spending to “Bernie bros” — referring to the young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“This is insane. … There’s no difference now between the two parties.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked his colleagues, “What in the hell are we doing?”
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida left saying it’s wrong to “bail out” cash-strapped states.
“Florida taxpayers are not going to pay for New York’s expenses,” he said.
Meadows told reporters that Trump wants to ensure the funding package “meets the legitimate needs that are before the American people.”
Republicans are poised to roll out a $1 trillion package, what McConnell called a “starting point” in talks.
It’s a counter-offer to Pelosi’s $3 trillion House-passed plan as they race to strike a deal by the end of the month. That’s when a $600 weekly unemployment benefits boost and other aid, including a federal rental moratorium on millions of apartment units, expires.
McConnell’s package would send a fresh round of cash payments to Americans below a certain income level, likely $75,000 for singles, extend small business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program and create a five-year liability shield against what he warns is a potential “epidemic” of coronavirus lawsuits.
It’s also expected to include at least $105 billion for education, with $70 billion to help K-12 schools reopen, $30 billion for colleges and $5 billion for governors to allocate.
The Trump administration wanted school money for reopenings, but in McConnell’s package the money for K-12 would be split 50-50 between those that have in-person learning and those that don’t.
Republicans said they want to replace the $600 weekly federal jobless benefit with a lower amount, to prevent the unemployed from receiving more aid than they would earn through a normal paycheck.
Over lunch, Mnuchin explained that the unemployment boost could be phased down to a percentage of a worker’s previous income, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Some Republicans prefer simply eliminating the $600 benefit.
Trump wants a full repeal of the 15.3 percent payroll tax, which is shared among employers and employees and funds Social Security and Medicare.
The administration also panned McConnell’s proposed $25 billion for more virus testing, saying earlier allotments remain unspent.
Joe Biden called for “a lifeline to those who need it most: working families and small businesses.”
Mnuchin vowed to stay on Capitol Hill for the next two weeks, determined to reach a deal this month.
The proposed virus aid package would be the fifth, following the $2.2 trillion bill passed in March, the largest U.S. intervention of its kind.
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