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Stimulus checks, liability are among the sticking points in last-minute Covid relief deal

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives for the news conference following the weekly Senate Republican caucus policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Congress tried to scratch out an elusive coronavirus relief deal Tuesday as familiar roadblocks stood in the way of aid for Americans struggling to cover food and housing costs.

Leaders in Washington hope to pass a rescue package before the end of the year after months of inaction. Failure to send more help before then could cut off unemployment benefits to about 12 million people and leave millions facing the threat of eviction.

To strike a deal in time, Republicans and Democrats still need to resolve major disputes over liability protections for business, state and local government relief and direct payments to Americans. Lawmakers plan to buy themselves more time to reach both pandemic aid and spending agreements by approving a one-week continuing resolution to keep the government funded through Dec. 18.

A bipartisan group has worked for days to craft a $908 billion compromise bill. The lawmakers aim to release more details about the proposal on Tuesday afternoon.

While Democrats have embraced the plan as a foundation for talks with Republican leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has continued to call for a roughly $500 billion “targeted” bill. He plans to discuss developing stimulus plans with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, according to Bloomberg.

A daily average Covid-19 infection rate of more than 200,000 has overwhelmed hospitals across the country. States and cities have implemented new economic restrictions to slow cases in an already sluggish economy where roughly 20 million people are receiving unemployment benefits.

Where the plans stand

Congressional leaders have signaled they want to attach coronavirus relief measures to spending legislation. The move would allow Congress to approve both must-pass bills in one swoop.

Reaching agreement on both fronts is the hard part.

The bipartisan plan as first outlined last week would put nearly $300 billion into Paycheck Protection Program small business loans and $160 billion into support for state and local governments that may have to lay off workers. It would reinstate the federal unemployment insurance supplement at $300 per week and put funds into Covid-19 vaccine distribution, education and transportation, among other measures.

The proposal as initially unveiled would also give companies temporary federal liability from coronavirus-related lawsuits until states make their own laws. However, the negotiators have not resolved how to craft final text around legal protections and state and local aid, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Tuesday.

McConnell has insisted on including a liability shield in a relief package. His more narrow approach includes that provision, along with PPP loans and money for vaccine distribution and education. He has opposed new state and local relief.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the GOP to abandon the push for legal immunity.

“The situation is really quite simple,” he said. “There are glaring needs across the country and we will need to work across party lines to pass legislation to meet those needs.”

Stimulus checks have emerged as a make-or-break issue in a relief deal. Two senators — independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri — have signaled they oppose a package that does not include direct payments to families.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Bloomberg on Tuesday that she still wants stimulus checks in an agreement. She said the question of including them “is really up to the president,” according to the news outlet.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that the Trump administration will push for direct payments in aid legislation. At the same time, McConnell’s opposition to the provision is “softening,” according to the report.

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