Senate COVID-19 Bill Leaves Majority Party Struggling

On Monday, July 27, 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) released his party’s counter to the House of Representatives HEROES Act. The rest of last week left the impression that Senate Republicans are not sure about the next steps.

The HEALS Act, as it has been labeled, is actually eight different bills from different members and committees all released on Monday night in various summaries or legislative texts including a: Senate Appropriations billSenate Finance Committee billsmall business bill, bill on liability reform, HELP Committee bill, trust fund bill, restaurant, and business meal deduction bill, and a supply chains bill. The total is $ 1 trillion compared to the House bill, which is at more than $3 trillion.

Some of the key controversies revolve around the Republican leadership’s position that they want to permanently discontinue the supplement unemployment benefit of $600 per week, which ended on July 31. The Democrats are supporting an extension until the end of this year. The HEALS Act would not provide the state fiscal relief that a bipartisan group of governors have been seeking, but it does include broad liability protection to a range of employers and providers, which is something the Democrats oppose.

There have not been any formal polls of Senate Republican caucus support for the package, but all week Senators have issued a series of complaints and comments on the size, provisions, and the next steps that should be taken. Several senators, including Senator Ted Cruise (R-TX), Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Senator Ron Paul (R-KY), complained about “deficit spending.” Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) complained about “spending porn” found in the bill. There seemed to be strong opposition, including Majority Leader McConnell, to the President’s insertion of $1.75 billion for a new FBI building that would replace the current structure situated across from the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. It would supplant recent attempts to build a substantially larger building in Virginia or Maryland that could accommodate a post-9-11 FBI.

Due to the mixed feelings, the next steps are unclear. The expanded unemployment benefit has expired. The Administration plan is to reduce it down to $200 and give states two months to reprogram their unemployment computer systems so that a benefit could be based on paying people 70 percent of what they used to earn in their job. Behind the scenes, there are acknowledgments that state systems are incapable of reprogramming in such a way even over a two-month period. That is why the flat across-the-board benefit was created. In the meantime, there is concern that if the $600 benefit is restored, some states will not be able to restore the benefit for at least a few weeks, potentially causing more hardship.

Several states are concerned that the loss of expanded unemployment benefits will now result in a surge in SNAP (food stamps) applications that could swamp states.  The $600 supplement made many people ineligible for the nutrition program.  There is also growing concern that any education funding intended to help schools reopen in person or virtually will now come too late since schools would normally start the new year in just a few weeks.

Talk of a temporary extension seemed to be going nowhere. It is not clear what that extension would be since Republican leaders do not want an extension of the $600 figure but want liability protection. The President did not add to a compromise when he highlighted a need to extend the ban on evictions from housing, yet the provision was not included in what was supposed to be a joint Administration-Senate proposal on Monday. The President said the tax payments/rebates were important as well as protecting people from being evicted but went on to say, “The rest of it, we’re so far apart, we don’t care.”

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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