Senate Republicans Announce $1 Trillion Covid Relief Package

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Republicans unveiled an estimated $1 trillion economic relief bill responding to the coronavirus pandemic Monday, though the package faces rounds of negotiations with Democrats who gave it a cool reception.

“The American people need more help,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday. “They need it to be comprehensive and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads. That is what this Senate majority has assembled.”

The legislation is the opening move from Republicans as Congress aims to complete yet another economic response package to build on the $3.6 trillion it has spent so far in the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 150,000 Americans and caused historic economic struggles.

But Democrats were critical of the proposal Republicans outlined Monday, suggesting intense negotiations are in the future before the package can become law. Democrats have called Republicans late to the game, given the Democrat-controlled House passed a $3 trillion relief bill in May.

That bill, which was dead-on-arrival in the Senate, included a massive payout to state and local governments, as well as hazard pay for essential workers.

In a floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Republican bill “totally inadequate,” saying it does not address key issues facing the country as the virus continues to spread across the country.

“The Republican proposal will ignore not one or two or three, but scores of major crises in America right now,” Schumer said, putting air quotes around the word proposal. 

Speaking to reporters after the legislation was unveiled, McConnell referred to the bill as a “starting place,” noting negotiations still need to take place with Democrats and the White House.

The package, a collection of smaller bills laid out by their Republican sponsors in a series of floor speeches Monday afternoon, would feature $105 billion for schools, with incentives for elementary, middle and high schools that open for in-person learning at least half of the time.

On the health care front, the bill would set aside $16 billion for testing and tracing efforts and $26 billion for the development of vaccines and treatments.

The GOP plan would lower the emergency federal unemployment benefit to $200 per week and then replace it with a system that allows workers to recoup 70% of their lost wages between the federal supplement and state unemployment insurance payouts. The first major coronavirus relief bill passed in March set the benefit at $600 per week, but that enhanced figure is set to expire at the end of the month.

Democrats have insisted on keeping the benefit at the current level of $600 per week, though Republicans have opposed doing so on the grounds that it is keeping people from rejoining the workforce in places where the economy is reopening.

In addition, the bill includes another round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans, as well as a modified version of the Paycheck Protection Program — the federal initiative that allows small businesses to take out loans that can be forgiven if they are used to cover payroll, rent and certain other expenses. 

Senator Susan Collins said the new legislation would allow small businesses that have seen a 50% or greater drop in revenue to take out a second loan under the program. The legislation would also add masks, upgraded heating and cooling systems and other measures that could help limit the spread of the virus to the expenses eligible for forgiveness under the program, Collins said.

The legislation also includes provisions to shield businesses, schools and other institutions that follow public health guidance from coronavirus-related lawsuits. A priority of McConnell, Democrats have been staunchly opposed to the idea, calling it a giveaway to businesses.

McConnell made clear at a press conference Monday the liability protections are a red line, proclaiming that no bill would pass the Senate without such provision.

Senator John Cornyn said the liability proposal would only allow for lawsuits in situations in which a person contracted Covid-19 due to the willful misconduct or gross negligence of a business.

“It will not prevent bad actors from facing the consequences of their action when it’s intentional or reckless,” Cornyn said when previewing the legislation on the Senate floor. “It will not ban coronavirus lawsuits and it won’t give anyone a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Republicans in the Senate and the White House have been working out the details of the relief package behind the scenes, but delayed release as they struggled to come to a consensus. Holding a majority in the House, Democrats will need to sign off on any bill for it to become law. 

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