Problem Solvers Caucus Proposes More Covid-19 Relief Options

A man wearing a mask depicting American flags jogs past the U.S. Capitol Building on April 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A bipartisan group of lawmakers Monday offered Congress a double dose of compromise to end months of gridlock over Covid-19 relief talks as the year and unemployment benefits for 12 million Americans run out.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, a 50-member group made up of moderate House Democrats and Republicans, have been chipping away at the months-long stalemate in Congress since September. Just two weeks ago, the caucus formally introduced a $908 billion proposal to shore up the U.S. economy, but it gained little traction.

On Monday, however, the caucus rolled out a new plan to break up the massive bill into two smaller parts with tailored features that might make passage slightly easier should the measures actually come up for a vote.

The first bill proposed by the caucus totals $748 billion and would extend unemployment benefits for another 16 weeks and to the tune of $300 in weekly supplemental aid. The CARES Act stimulus package passed in the spring offered $600 in unemployment benefits.

Approximately $300 billion from that $748 billion pool would aid small businesses while a $13 million purse would be allocated for emergency food assistance. Another $13 million would be parceled out to hurting farmers, ranchers and fisheries. Under the proposal, student loan forbearance would be extended through April 2021 and an eviction moratorium set to expire just after Christmas would extend through Jan. 31 while another $25 billion would go toward rental assistance.

During a press conference unveiling the legislation Monday, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, illuminated the stakes saying: “It would be Scrooge-like if we went away and left folks the day after Christmas to lose their unemployment, or the day after New Year’s to lose their apartment.”

What is not included anywhere in the first proposal package is a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks like those that were issued when the pandemic initially swept across America. The omission may prove to be a fatal flaw since last week Senators Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, vowed from the Senate floor to delay passage on any relief bill that does not have a direct payment.

The second bill put forward by the caucus is a $160 billion package which would infuse state, local and tribal governments with much needed funding. Notably, it includes a legal liability protection provision for nonprofit organizations and businesses, including universities and hospitals.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has championed liability protections, often pointing to his fears of an “epidemic of lawsuits” that would wash over the U.S. once the pandemic is eased.

“It simply won’t make it possible for us to get back to normal,” McConnell said last week.

But Democrats have balked at the liability shields, arguing they would hurt workers while giving businesses carte blanche to expose employees to a variety of injuries — physical and legal. 

Under the $160 billion package, a “nationwide gross negligence standard for Covid-19 exposure, medical malpractice and workplace testing claims” would be stood up and plaintiffs would be allowed to file in state court or have the option to remove to federal court.

Where Republicans in the House and Senate would likely cringe at the suggestion, another compromise built into the deal might prove more workable. Under the bill, employers are not subject to liability under federal employment law in cases of exposure to Covid-19 if it can be shown that the employer was “trying to conform to public health standards and guidance.”

The Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Tom Reed, a New York Republican, told reporters Monday that compromise could still be made on liability issues and state and local funding.

A summary of the bill also notes that governors would have to distribute at least 40% of their state and local funding based on population size or the loss of revenue due to the pandemic or a combination of both.

There is an ever-shrinking window to pass relief with a government funding currently in the works to avoid a shutdown by this Friday. It is expected the stopgap measure will be rolled out on Tuesday.

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