A Vacation From COVID

After months of negotiations (during days off from campaigning), Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on the size and shape of assistance urgently needed by millions of Americans.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were reportedly talking in terms of a package worth nearly $2 trillion. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is focused on an aid package targeted to the immediate coronavirus emergency. That package, estimated at $519 billion, was introduced by Republicans in September.

That’s right, a trillion and a half dollars separates them. Don’t rub your eyes; you’ll only make it worse.

Among the divisive issues are funding for a virus testing plan, aid to state and local governments and tax cuts for low- and middle-income families.

Last Friday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to discuss such matters.

Without naming a figure, they said the bill had to contain “resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments trying to keep frontline workers on the payroll, expanded unemployment insurance, and affordable health care for millions of families.”

All these are laudable goals. But if there’s no compromise, there won’t be any of that.

Meanwhile, the economic ravages of the pandemic persist. And just when things seemed to be getting better, back at least in the direction of normal, hopes were again shut down.

As the Associate Press reported this week, “Waiters and bartenders are being thrown out of work — again — as Governors and local officials shut down indoor dining and drinking establishments to combat the nationwide surge in coronavirus infections that is overwhelming hospitals and dashing hopes for a quick economic recovery.”

Restaurant owners are struggling to survive financially amid varying strictures. With indoor dining banned, they are offering curbside pickup, and where possible, outdoor dining, in some cases in heated shelters.

In California, Michigan, Colorado and elsewhere, courts were upholding state bans. Arguments that restaurants were being treated unfairly were told by one judge they are unlike other businesses in that their customers have to remove their masks to eat or drink, the AP reported.

In the American tradition of rugged individualism, unabashed defiance is always an option, though it might mean paying a price. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis warned restaurants that they could see their licenses revoked if they violate closure orders after several businesses signed a letter saying they will continue operating at full indoor capacity.

Of course, that’s just in the dining-out sector. It says nothing of travel and tourism, retail outlets and myriad other businesses that are threatened if not already destroyed by the shutdowns.

If not ameliorated, the situation will soon get worse. With just eight legislative days left in their calendar, the door of legislative opportunity is closing. On December 26, approximately 12 million Americans will be left with no income after two federal jobless-aid programs created in March expire, according to a study published by the Century Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.

It’s unconscionable that Washington lawmakers should go on vacation (a stay-home vacation, of course, except for the clandestinely — or defiantly — noncompliant) while millions of Americans stare at the abyss from their living room windows.

Fortunately, on Tuesday the sun rose again and, along with it, a glimmer of hope.

“We need to act,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the fourth-ranking Democrat in that chamber. “We have good discussions going on, bipartisan discussions in the Senate right now.”

“To me, this is about making sure there are no winners and losers, that whatever we do is comprehensive,” Stabenow said. “And it’s less about the overall number because, even if there is a short-term package for the next few months, until we get into the new Biden administration, we have to act now.”

“I just hope that we can get agreement. It may not be everything that everybody wants but at least if we can get some significant relief to people,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CQ Roll Call. “And then we’re going to be here next year. If we need to do other things, we’ll do other things.”

Hoyer and Stabenow, veteran politicians, do not belong to the young progressives. They don’t want it all now. Or even if they do, they know they can’t get it, and will settle for less, rather than righteously go away with nothing.

If the $1.5 trillion gap can’t be closed before the end of the calendar year, at least there could be an interim relief bill, with a solemn promise to fight over the rest later.

It can be done, and without risking the safety of Washington’s finest. If presidential nominating conventions can be held virtually and 100 million ballots can be mailed in, senators and members of Congress can do the job from home as well.