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Bipartisan COVID-19 Relief Talks Are Hitting A Wall With Time Running Out

WASHINGTON — With unemployment benefit extensions ending in two weeks, Congress is yet again confronting an uncomfortable reality: There may be no coronavirus compromise in the offing.

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The bipartisan group of senators negotiating a roughly $900 billion pandemic relief proposal that generated optimism on Capitol Hill might be running into the same issue that party leaders have faced for months — an inability to compromise on a liability shield for businesses and other organizations. 

Republicans want a broad and yearslong clampdown on lawsuits that are even tangentially related to the coronavirus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposal could affect unrelated medical malpractice suits and supersede labor and civil rights laws in some circumstances. The Kentucky Republican has railed against trial lawyers for decades and all but said he won’t accept a compromise.

Democrats have offered a pause on coronavirus-related personal injury lawsuits for four to six months, according to two sources briefed on the negotiations. That pause would give states time to update their own liability laws, which some have already done. McConnell has called for preempting all state laws that are less strict than his own proposal, which would make it harder to get a trial and harder to prove negligence. Democrats also offered an indemnification program, somewhat similar to the 9/11 victim compensation fund, that would help organizations pay legal damages if they’re found liable for negligently exposing someone to the virus. 

But the two sides don’t seem close to an agreement on liability. And with McConnell urging them to stop trying, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the main Republicans involved in the talks, suggested Thursday that giving up might be the best option. Other lawmakers sounded pessimistic on Friday morning. 

“We have an eight-month impasse around liability issues, and it’s proving to be extremely difficult to close it,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of the moderate senators attempting to negotiate a deal, told reporters on Friday.

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The number two Senate Republican, John Thune (R-S.D.), said the best way forward at this point was to take McConnell’s suggestion: Agree to drop the liability shield language in exchange for eliminating $160 billion in state and local funding from the relief package.

Democrats are extremely resistant to that idea, as state and local funding is one of their top priorities. And it’s not a foregone conclusion that senators won’t reach a deal.

“We’re still working on it. Nothing is coming out,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the lead Democrat negotiating a bipartisan compromise, told HuffPost.

But setting aside the liability shield and the $160 billion might be the only way forward ― and something that some Democrats might be willing, reluctantly, to accept.

When HuffPost asked moderate Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) about the idea of dropping both the state and local money and the liability shield, he said he wouldn’t call it a “non-starter,” but added that he and most Democrats would probably find that “unacceptable.”

Still, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted that idea earlier this week, saying that the state and local aid is bipartisan, unlike McConnell’s “extreme corporate liability proposal.”

“He’s sabotaging good-faith, bipartisan negotiations because his partisan ideological effort is not getting a good reception,” Schumer said.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called McConnell’s idea an appalling effort to undermine bipartisan negotiations. “What does McConnell have against our heroes?” Pelosi asked.

Don’t just think about your state. Think about what’s happening across all 50 states because there is need and it is great. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

The suggested compromise would certainly not be the deal that Democrats would choose on their own. Following the CARES Act in March, House Democrats have already passed two additional relief bills — one in May that amounted to $3 trillion, including $1 trillion for state and local governments, and one in October that offered $2.2 trillion, including $436 billion in state and local aid. But those bills are going nowhere in the Senate, and with an extension of unemployment benefits running out, on top of a moratorium on evictions expiring and the unemployment rate potentially rising, Democrats may be inclined to take something over nothing.

There also may be some hidden benefits in withholding state and local aid.

For one, since lawmakers are operating under a self-imposed arbitrary spending limit, dropping the state and local government aid would free up $160 billion that could be used for stimulus checks. The current bipartisan proposal doesn’t include checks, and Thune actually noted Friday that there was some discussion of putting that $160 billion toward individual stimulus.

For another, not acting on state and local aid and liability now may increase the likelihood that Congress acts again in the initial days of the Biden administration ― though any more pandemic relief is hardly guaranteed. But state and city governments are already planning major layoffs, including of essential personnel like police officers, and Republican governors may agitate for more help.

As Schumer noted, providing fiscal support to state and local governments already has bipartisan backing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pleaded with her GOP colleagues this week to recognize that the pandemic has created legitimate problems for both blue and red states.

“Don’t just think about your state. Think about what’s happening across all 50 states because there is need and it is great,” she said, noting that tax revenues in Alaska have dropped by 33%, or $1.3 billion. 

Again, Democrats and some Republicans may not like the gambit of leaving out the aid now. When HuffPost asked Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) about that option this week, he noted that the country is headed into the worst period of the pandemic — both in terms of daily cases and deaths — and said it would be like holding a patient in intensive care for four or five months before actually trying to save the patient.

If lawmakers ultimately decide to drop the two most contentious proposals, it’s not clear what McConnell would then want to pass ― the remaining products of the bipartisan negotiation or the versions of those provisions that McConnell himself prefers. The negotiated framework would preserve federal unemployment benefits for four months, supplemented with an extra $300 per week. McConnell’s latest proposal omitted an extra benefit.

A spokesman for the Senate majority leader did not respond when HuffPost asked if McConnell would accept the unemployment provisions of the bipartisan framework.

We just need a break until this disease, which we didn’t cause, is at least under control. They’ve got to get us from here to there. Raymond Bianchi, who lost his job because of the pandemic

If Congress can’t strike a deal, then federal unemployment programs for gig workers and the long-term jobless will expire on Dec. 26, halting that income for nearly 12 million workers.

Raymond Bianchi of Oak Park, Illinois, is one of them. He had worked in the trade show industry for 25 years until he lost his job as an executive vice president in March. Trade shows can’t really happen, after all, when there’s an uncontrolled plague.

Bianchi, 52, said he’s applied for many jobs in other industries that aren’t as dependent on mass gatherings, but he has struggled to compete with candidates who have more relevant experience.

His wife still has her job, he said, but if his income stops at the end of the month, he’ll have to start drawing down savings, and in a matter of months would have to start thinking about selling their house. It’s particularly frustrating with a vaccine nearing approval and a return to normalcy ― and his career ― on the horizon. 

The bipartisan deal would give Bianchi another 16 weeks of benefits with an extra $300 per week.

“We just need a break until this disease, which we didn’t cause, is at least under control,” Bianchi said. “They’ve got to get us from here to there. I think if you could get people in my business through March or April, I think things would open up and things would turn around.”

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