Top Senate Democrat Says Agreement Is Close Over Coronavirus Financial Package

Mar 23, 2020
Originally published on March 24, 2020 7:20 am

Updated at 7:20 a.m. ET

After a tense day on the Senate floor that included leaders trading barbs over who is to blame for failing to advance a new coronavirus response bill, the top Senate Democrat said late Monday night that he was "very, very close" to an agreement with the White House on a deal for a third wave of emergency funding that could go well past $1 trillion.

"There are still a few little differences. Neither of us think they are in any way going to get in the way of a final agreement. Secretary Mnuchin called the president, we told him we are very, very close to an agreement and he seemed very happy with that," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters shortly before midnight.

Schumer met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin four times Monday, including a meeting shortly after 8 p.m., a Schumer spokesman had said.

The top Senate Democrat said that there was a desire to get things settled on Tuesday. "I think the American people want it done as quickly as possible," Schumer added, noting that he was pleased with where talks stood on Democratic priorities related to support for workers and hospitals.

It was not clear overnight where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stood on a possible deal between Democrats and the White House.

McConnell set up yet another procedural vote to move forward on the legislation. Two previous attempts failed to advance the bill – one on Sunday and again Monday when Democrats largely held together to try to force more changes to the bill. If there is an agreement the Senate could vote earlier.

McConnell has blamed Democrats for delaying progress on the bill even as Democrats continued to negotiate with White House officials.

McConnell called for the Senate to support a GOP-drafted bill that includes expanded unemployment insurance, aid for small businesses and loans for large corporations, among other proposals.

"The American people have had enough of this nonsense. They're wondering where we are. They're looking to us to solve this problem," McConnell said.

Democrats said the measure didn't go far enough for worker protections and too far for aid to major industries, and had insufficient oversight for the assistance fund based at the Treasury Department for impacted industries.

Late Monday, House Democrats introduced their counter proposal to the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stressed that any final proposal should protect worker pay and benefits and not CEO pay, stock buybacks or layoffs.

A House Democratic aide said the package was valued at $2.5 trillion and focused on boosting healthcare access, unemployment insurance, the healthcare industry and payments to workers, among other issues. Pelosi has not said whether the House would move forward with its proposal. The chamber could take up the Senate bill if more changes are made to it that satisfy Democrats' concerns.

President Trump said Monday evening that he hoped lawmakers would make a breakthrough.

"I think the Democrats want a deal and I think we want a deal. So it would be very foolish if they didn't make a deal. The American public is demanding a deal," he said.

While there has been general consensus on key provisions of the package, including small-business loan guarantees and direct cash payments, Democrats want more conditions placed on funds to assist large corporations in order to ensure, for instance, that the money goes to protect workers' jobs and not stock buybacks to benefit shareholders.

Democrats are also asking for more money for hospitals and more generous unemployment benefits for laid-off workers — proposals that, if included, would balloon the cost of the package even more.

Republicans criticized Democrats for "last-minute demands" that they see as not critical to the crisis at hand, such as new collective bargaining powers for unions, increased fuel emissions standards for airlines and expanded wind and solar tax credits.

McConnell argued that Democrats were turning the bill into a "left-wing episode of Supermarket Sweep."

Schumer told reporters early Monday morning that Democrats see this bill as their best opportunity to provide the most help. "This bill is going to affect this country and the lives of Americans not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years — so we have to make sure it is good," he said.

While tensions between McConnell and Schumer are high, Mnuchin has been an active participant in the negotiations, talking and meeting with Democrats all day Sunday and into the early Monday morning hours.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is going to introduce a counterproposal in the House on Monday afternoon. It's unclear whether Pelosi's move is a pressure tactic on the Senate to reach a deal or a firm commitment to move a House bill. Moving forward on competing legislation could delay negotiations considerably.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., previously announced that he would not reconvene lawmakers back in Washington until there was critical legislation to vote for in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As more lawmakers test positive for the virus and even more self-quarantine because of possible exposure, Congress itself is racing a clock to pass a bill and likely recess for at least a few weeks. While some lawmakers continue to call for allowing remote voting in the House and Senate, both Pelosi and McConnell remain resistant to the idea, which has never been done before, would require votes to change the rules of both chambers and could face constitutional challenges.

In an afternoon speech, Pelosi encouraged the Senate to include ideas from the House Democrats' proposal, which is called the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act. It focuses on direct payments to Americans, paid leave for workers and child tax credits, among other efforts, she said.

"We urge the Senate to move closer to the values in the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act," she said. "We must be bold and forward looking in our thinking ... swift and evidence based in our actions, and we must be prayerful."

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