White House Offers $600 Checks to COVID-19 Relief

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

The Trump administration is back in the middle of Capitol Hill’s confusing COVID-19 negotiations, offering a $916 billion package to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.

The offer arrived Tuesday with the endorsement of the top House Republican and appeared to demonstrate some flexibility by powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But Democrats immediately blasted the plan over the administration’s refusal to back the partial restoration, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.

The House on Wednesday will pass a one-week government funding bill to give lawmakers more time to sort through the hot mess they have created for themselves after months of futile negotiations and posturing and recent rounds of flip-flopping. Without the measure, the government would shut down this weekend.

McConnell says Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. The pressure to deliver is intense — all sides say failure isn’t an option.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made the new offer to Pelosi late Tuesday afternoon, he said in a statement. He offered few details, though House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said it proposes the $600 direct payment for individuals and $1,200 for couples, which is half the payment delivered by the March pandemic relief bill.

Mnuchin reached out to Pelosi after a call with top congressional GOP leaders, including McConnell, who remains at odds with Democratic leaders over COVID-19 relief. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted as unacceptable Mnuchin’s move to drop a $300 per week additional federal unemployment benefit to supplement regular state benefits.

The top Democrats are instead invested in the work of a bipartisan group take the lead in crafting a solution.

That group — led by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others — is seeking to rally lawmakers behind a $908 billion framework that includes a $300-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and $160 billion for states and local governments. It is more generous than a GOP plan that’s been filibustered twice already but far smaller than a wish list assembled by House Democrats.

Details leaked Wednesday on less controversial elements of the bipartisan group, including a four-month extension of jobless benefits set to expire at the end of the month, $300 billion for “paycheck protection” subsidies for struggling businesses, funding for vaccines and testing, and a host of smaller items like aid to transit systems, the Postal Service and health care providers.

Negotiations continue on a hotly contested liability shield from COVID-related lawsuits brought against businesses, universities, and others that have reopened during the pandemic. The liability issue is regarded as a key to an eventual agreement that would pair the business relief with a $160 billion state and local aid package sought by Democrats.

Republican members of the group won’t budge above the agreed-upon $908 billion price tag, which leaves no room for even the reduced $600 direct government payment to most Americans that is sought by Trump.

Other key elements of a potential year-end COVID-19 rescue package are clear: Another round of subsidies for businesses that are especially hard hit by the pandemic; extension of regular state jobless benefits set to expire Dec. 31; funding to distribute vaccines and other help for struggling health care providers; and funding for schools.