Senate GOP Introduces Second Stimulus Bill
In a Monday afternoon press conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced the Senate's response to the Covid-19 stimulus bill passed by the House in May: a trillion-dollar package entitled the HEALS Act. The legislation was expected to be unveiled last week, but intra-party disputes between the White House and a few Hill Republicans over the total amount of aid delayed the announcement until Monday.
AP Photo / Evan Vucci
Headlining the proposal is a long-awaited extension of the federal unemployment benefits instituted by the March stimulus package. Under the current regulations, claimants can bring in $600 each week in addition to state monies, but if the GOP proposal passes as is, federal benefits would fall to $200 a week. The current payment plan has brought criticism from several notable conservatives like Senator Ben Sasse, who argued that extra unemployment benefits eliminate the incentive to work and provide good reason for companies to lay workers off. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously disagreed with Sasse by expressing his support for higher benefits when the CARES Act was passed in March, but as the primary representative for the White House during the HEALS negotiations, he apparently altered his position to align with most of the GOP senators. House Democrats attempted to extend the federal unemployment benefits without reducing the payout amounts in their May bill, but it seems that Republicans may demand some compromise in order to pass the package through both houses.
The trillion-dollar price tag also includes $105 billion of emergency funding for educational institutions, with $70 billion going to elementary and high schools and just under $30 billion directed to universities. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) told the media that "this legislation provides additional funding for K-12 schools to get kids back into the classroom, at least fifty percent of the time, which would be a big start."
Hill conservatives also ensured that the medical community continues to receive critical funding for research and treatment. The bill allocates $26 billion for vaccine research and production with an additional $15.5 billion set aside for NIH studies into societal effects of Covid-19. In a definitively popular move, the HEALS Act appropriates $16 billion to expand testing availability nationwide.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) confirmed that the Senate GOP's plan would issue another round of direct checks to the American people, with regulations and restrictions remaining basically the same. Workers with annual paychecks of less than $75,000 would again receive $1,200, while couples making less than $150,000 would retain $2,400 in stimulus checks. In an alteration to the previous restrictions, heads of households will now get $500 for each dependent with no age limit being applied.
Finally, the Senate's package institutes liability protection for schools, businesses, churches, and other establishments to shield them from a barrage of Covid-related lawsuits. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) led the effort to include this in the GOP legislation, arguing that "even if businesses and hospitals follow all the relevant guidelines and act in good faith, they could end up fighting a very long and a very expensive lawsuit. They could end up winning that lawsuit, but they could also end up going bankrupt in the process." Although liability protection has received some bipartisan support, Democrats have largely opposed it in favor of further protections for healthcare and emergency workers.
Congressional Democrats widely panned the GOP package, and many Democratic representatives have spurned it in favor of their own bill passed in May. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attacked McConnell's "piece-meal" approach to the stimulus package, saying, "It's pretty clear they don't have 51 votes in the Senate among the Republicans for a proposal. It's frustrating." Other Democratic leaders echoed the Speaker's sentiment. As House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told reporters, "We passed the Heroes Act two and a half months ago. It was a comprehensive and decisive response to a deadly pandemic. The administration and Mitch McConnell have done nothing ever since. It’s time to act and act in a transformative way, and not with a short-term Band-Aid-like fix."
Both the HEALS Act and the House package passed in May face significant hurdles on the road to President Trump's desk. Although the first stimulus package swept through both houses with broad bipartisan support, the two parties are now far apart on many points. Democrats proposed $1 trillion in state funding, but Republicans want to simply allow localities to have more choice in how they spend previously appropriated funds. As previously mentioned, the left is also quite leery of cuts to unemployment benefits, and many do not support liability protection for private businesses. McConnell's bill even faces rare pushback from within his own party, as many conservatives are hesitant to spend more money than necessary. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a steadfast supporter of the Trump administration, conceded that "there is significant resistance to yet another trillion dollars...I think it's likely that you'll see a number of Republicans in opposition to this bill and expressing serious concerns."
Mnuchin and other White House officials began official negotiations with Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Monday night, which reportedly did not go well. Terse discussions and intense negotiations are sure to continue for the next few weeks. If Congress wants to pass any stimulus package to aid the American people and economy, much will have to be compromised, and quickly.
Daniel Hostetter is the Acquisitions Editor for The National Times.