WASHINGTON – Top Republicans in Congress were expecting to meet Monday with President Donald Trump on the next COVID-19 aid package as the administration panned more virus testing money and interjected other priorities that could complicate quick passage.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was prepared to roll out the $1 trillion package in a matter of days. But divisions between the Senate GOP majority and the White House posed fresh challenges. Congress was returning to session this week as the coronavirus crisis many had hoped would have improved by now only worsened — and just as earlier federal emergency relief was expiring.
Trump insisted again Sunday that the virus would “disappear,” but the president's view did not at all match projections from the leading health professionals straining to halt the U.S.'s alarming caseloads and death toll.
McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy were set to meet with Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “to fine-tune” the legislation, acting chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Fox News.
The package from McConnell had been quietly crafted behind closed doors for weeks and was expected to include $75 billion to help schools reopen, reduced unemployment benefits alongside a fresh round of direct $1,200 cash payments to Americans, and a sweeping five-year liability shield against coronavirus lawsuits.
But as the White House weighed in, the administration was panning some $25 billion in proposed new funds for testing and tracing, said one Republican familiar with the discussions. The administration's objections were first reported by The Washington Post.
Trump was also reviving his push for a payroll tax break, which was being seriously considered, said another Republican. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.
The new push from the White House put the administration at odds with GOP allies in Congress, a disconnect that threatened to upend an already difficult legislative process. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi already passed Democrats' vast $3 trillion proposal and virus cases and deaths had only increased since.
Trump raised alarms on Capitol Hill when he suggested last month at a rally in Oklahoma that he wanted to slow virus testing. Some of Trump's GOP allies wanted new money to help test and track the virus to contain its spread. Senate Democrats were investigating why the Trump administration had not yet spent some of $25 billion previously allocated for testing in an earlier aid bill.
The payroll tax Trump wanted also divided his party. Senate Republicans in particular opposed the payroll tax break as an insufficient response to millions of out-of-work Americans, especially as they tried to keep the total price tag of the aid package at no more than $1 trillion.
Trump said Sunday in the Fox News interview that he would consider not signing any bill unless it included the payroll tax break, which many GOP senators opposed.
"I want to see it," he said.
Lawmakers were returning to a partially closed Capitol still off-limits to tourists to consider what will be a fifth COVID-19 aid package. After passing the $2.2 trillion relief bill in March, Republicans hoped the virus would ease and economy rebound so more aid would not be needed.
But with COVID-19 cases hitting alarming new highs and the death roll rising, the pandemic's devastating cycle was happening all over again, leaving Congress little choice but to engineer another costly rescue. Businesses were shutting down again, schools could not fully reopen and jobs were disappearing, all while federal emergency aid expired.
“It’s not going to magically disappear,” said a somber McConnell, R-Ky., last week during a visit to a hospital in his home state to thank front-line workers.
As McConnell prepared to roll out his $1 trillion-plus proposal, he acknowledged it would not have full support.
The political stakes were high for all sides before the November election, but even more so for the nation, which now registered more coronavirus infections and a higher death count than any other country.
Just as the pandemic's ferocious cycle was starting again, the first round of aid was running out.
A federal $600-a-week boost to regular unemployment benefits would expire at the end of the month. So, too, would the federal ban on evictions on millions of rental units.
With 17 straight weeks of unemployment claims topping 1 million — usually about 200,000 — many households were facing a cash crunch and losing employer-backed health insurance coverage.
Despite flickers of an economic upswing as states eased stay-at-home orders in May and June, the jobless rate remained at double digits, higher than it ever was in the last decade's Great Recession.
Pelosi's bill, approved in May, included $75 billion for testing and tracing to try to get a handle on the virus spread, funneled $100 billion to schools to safely reopen and called for $1 trillion to be sent to cash-strapped states to pay essential workers and prevent layoffs. The measure would give cash stipends to Americans, and bolster rental and mortgage and other safety net protections.
In the two months since Pelosi's bill passed, the U.S. had 50,000 more deaths and 2 million more infections.
“If we don’t invest the money now, it will be much worse,” Pelosi said.