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GOP COVID Aid Bills Coming this Week — Finally

Congress took a frustrated breath late this week when Senate Republicans finally acknowledged the “fundamental agreement” between the caucus and the White House on a GOP version of a “phase four” COVID 19 economic stimulus package wasn’t so fundamental after all.   Senate Republican leaders say it won’t be until “early next week” when they release “a series of bills” laying out how they plan to continue federal financial assistance for businesses and individuals.  

The schedule shift signals next week, and likely the first days of August, will be politically charged and frenetic as lawmakers hustle to finish the COVID legislation and get out of town for their August recess and some serious electioneering.    

Smelling political blood in the water, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, NY) took the first shots, saying at a late-week joint press conference, “Even after all this time, it appears the Republican legislative response to COVID is ununified, unserious, unsatisfactory.”  Pelosi was far harsher.  “They didn’t use the pause to prepare and what we’ve seen so far falls very short,” she opined.  “The delay, the denial have caused deaths.”

Stakeholders are nervous, given some current benefits bestowed by the $2-trillion CARES Act, including supplemental unemployment payments, expire at the end of July.  Things looked good early in the week when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters the political and economic stars had aligned in negotiations between the Republican Senate and the Trump White House over how much should be spent on which programs, including the president abandoning his call for suspending employer payroll taxes, a notion wildly unpopular with Democrats, but also with a good chunk of his own party.

With the election less than four months away, Democrats are eager to ravage any GOP Senate effort to “stimulate” the economy and provide personal/business aid.  The Democrat-controlled House approved in May a $3.5-trillion HEROES Act, including nearly $1 trillion in state/local government  assistance to make up lost tax revenues and recoup COVID coping expenditures.  Senate Republicans reject state/local assistance, along with what they deem social service and unrelated policy sections of that bill. 

Late Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) reframed the “fundamental” deal with the White House as an “agreement in principle,” saying the administration needs more time to review details.  When it became clear the promised draft wasn’t going to materialize, several GOP Senators blamed the “uncharted waters” into which lawmakers were sailing and a need to be unusually careful in drafting.

Still unresolved is whether or how to extend the $600-per-week unemployment supplement program.  Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue the program is a disincentive for recipients to seek work, providing in many cases, higher incomes than in pre-COVID days.  The GOP says they want to provide up to 70% of a worker’s pre-COVID wages; Democrats say even the Trump Department of Labor (DOL) calls that goal undoable. 

If there are no new unemployment supplements in the phase four package, then tax “rebates” – identical to the $1,200 per person in the $2-trillion CARES Act – kick in, said Mnuchin. Benefits phase down for folks making more than $75,000 per year, and all things being equal, checks could be in the mail by the end of August, Mnuchin said.

Not drawing public fire yet is aid to farmers and ranchers. Sen. John Hoeven (R, ND), chair of the ag/FDA subcommittee of the Senate appropriations panel, reports the package carries $30-35 billion in new money for USDA to help keep producers afloat by extending current aid and topping up the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) checkbook. Also important to ag is extension and relaxation of the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of those magic federal programs where a “loan” turns into a “grant” if recipients follow rules. 

The package is guaranteed to carry a form of employer liability protection from COVID-related worker lawsuits, an issue on which Democrats are at best ambivalent.  A McConnell must-have, reports indicate the GOP deal cut will likely require workers to prove employers are “grossly negligent,” there is “willful misconduct,” and demonstrable violation of federal and state health guidelines and requirements. 

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