McConnell Suggests Dropping Biggest Sticking Points to Reach COVID-19 Relief Deal

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is urging President Trump to veto any coronavirus aid bill that does not include direct payments.

Patrick Semansky/AP


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Patrick Semansky/AP

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is urging President Trump to veto any coronavirus aid bill that does not include direct payments.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Updated at 3:05 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says Democrats and Republicans negotiating a Coronavirus relief bill should set aside the two most significant partisan demands and reach a deal on the remaining elements.

Republicans have rejected Democrats’ demands for $150 billion in funding for state and local governments and Democrats have been equally opposed to a GOP request for a liability waiver for COVID-19 related lawsuits.

“What I recommend is we set aside liability and set aside state and local and pass those things that we can agree on knowing full well we’ll be back at this after the first of the year,” McConnell said at a press conference in the Capitol. “We can’t leave without doing a covid bill -–the country needs it.”

The comments are a significant departure for McConnell who has insisted on liability limits for months.

Congressional leaders are working to finalize the details of a narrow, short-term coronavirus aid package, but some lawmakers are making a last-minute push to add a fresh round of stimulus checks to the deal.

McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they hope to include coronavirus relief in a year-end spending bill. The deadline for that legislation is this Friday but lawmakers released short term legislation today that would give them until Dec. 18 to reach a deal.

The current negotiations are focused on a $908 billion bipartisan plan that includes more money for small businesses, additional federal unemployment benefits and money for testing, vaccine distribution and schools. Republican leaders have insisted that any coronavirus bill be limited in scope, but Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told reporters this week that he is urging President Trump to veto any bill that doesn’t include checks for individual Americans.

“I continue to be flummoxed as to why there aren’t any direct payments on it. Everybody supported this in March,” Hawley said. “It’s the most useful, helpful and, frankly, popular aspect.”

The legislation under consideration would extend widely used safety net programs like $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits, a ban on evictions from properties with federally backed mortgages and a pause on student loan payments. All of those programs are set to expire at the end of December.

But leaders had avoided discussions of more stimulus checks to help ease passage in the Senate where GOP leaders have insisted on keeping funding under $1 trillion. The last round of $1,200 checks that were approved in the CARES Act in March cost the government about $293 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the negotiators working on a bipartisan COVID-19 bill, told reporters that direct checks are not part of the current discussion.

“I know there’s considerable public support for it, but right now we’re targeting struggling families, failing businesses, health care workers,” Collins said. “We don’t have a stimulus check to every single person, regardless of need.”

Trump has supported the idea of new checks in the past, including an October tweet demanding a new round of checks as a standalone bill.

But Trump isn’t directly involved in the current talks and has tasked White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with overseeing the negotiations.

Hawley isn’t alone in arguing for fresh payments. Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have been calling for more payments, arguing that people who are at risk of eviction need more than a halt to the proceedings that could leave them homeless.

“What I have real concerns about is the American people thinking Congress struck a deal we’re getting COVID relief, and then their lives changing very little, if nothing on a material basis,” Ocasio-Cortez told a reporter pool on Capitol Hill last week, acknowledging that something is better than nothing, but added, “If they don’t get a stimulus check, then relief isn’t going to be felt in their lives. Not in a substantive way.”

Ocasio-Cortez said she will support the legislation, which includes money for hospitals and hard-hit state and local governments, but she thinks Congress needs to do more.

Adding another round of similar checks would increase the total cost of the package currently being negotiated by nearly one-third. The push from Hawley comes as leaders are narrowing in on a deal but remain in conflict over GOP demands to ban COVID-19 related liability lawsuits.

Democrats included a new round of direct payments in the two larger coronavirus aid packages that passed the House in May and October. The bipartisan bill that is being used as a starting point for the current negotiations does not include the checks. Democrats generally support adding checks to the talks if Senate Republicans will agree, according to several aides.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told reporters he’s talked to Hawley and is working “24/7 right now with anybody and everybody” to get stimulus checks added to any deal.

“I think Trump supporters out there like everybody else are hurting right now. Many have lost their jobs, many are struggling with issues of eviction. They want that $1,200, and I hope that the Republican leadership and members of the Republican caucus understand that,” Sanders said.

Democrats are hoping to pass a new round of aid quickly after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.