WASHINGTON (AP) – Despite disarray in the Republican ranks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was pushing Wednesday to unveil a draft COVID-19 aid package as the White House resists Democratic demands for more virus testing, state funding and housing eviction protections.
Key GOP senators revolted over the emerging effort as the price tag could quickly swell above $1 trillion. Conservative Republicans vowed to slow-walk passage of any bill. But pressure is mounting as the virus crisis deepens and a $600 weekly unemployment boost and housing relief comes to an end Friday.
Exasperated Democrats, who already passed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s more sweeping $3 trillion package, said time is running out for President Donald Trump and his GOP allies to act.
â€œWe’re in a national crisis,â€ Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer insisted on the chamber floor.
â€œWe’re still on the 20-yard line?â€ he said, referring to White House comments. â€œWhere have the Republicans been?â€
McConnell said little about the pandemic as he opened the Senate and the nation’s death toll topped 142,000, the outbreak delaying schools from opening in fall and forcing states to clampdown with new stay-home orders.
The White House negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the president’s acting chief of staff, made clear in private talks at the Capitol that the Trump administration opposes new spending on virus testing, housing aid or money for cash-strapped states.
Meeting with Pelosi and Schumer on Tuesday, Mnuchin and Meadows resisted those key elements of the Democratic proposals, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private talks.
Instead, the Republicans say $150 billion allotted previously to state governments is sufficient to avert sweeping layoffs and they said more housing protections are not needed to stem what advocates warn will be an eviction crisis.
Still, behind the scenes McConnell is moving forward with a draft proposal to launch talks with Democrats.
McConnell’s blueprint is expected to include new round of direct payments to earners below a certain income level, similar to the $1,200 checks sent in the spring. It also will likely have some version of Trump’s demand for payroll tax holiday for workers, which many Republicans oppose.
Republicans are expected to include at least $105 billion for education, with $70 billion to help K-12 schools reopen, $30 billion for colleges and $5 billion for governors to allocate. The Trump administration wanted school money linked to reopenings, but in McConnellâ€™s package the money for K-12 would be split 50-50 between those that have in-person learning and those that donâ€™t.
Republicans said they want to replace the $600 weekly federal jobless benefit with a lower amount, to prevent the unemployed from receiving more aid than they would through a normal paycheck.
A private lunch session Tuesday grew heated as key Republican senators complained about big spending.
Supporters of the package â€œshould be ashamed of themselves,â€ Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said as he emerged.
Paul compared GOP backers of the spending to â€œBernie brosâ€ – referring to the young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. â€œThis is insane. … Thereâ€™s no difference now between the two parties.â€
As senators rose to speak about aspects of the bill, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked his colleagues, â€œWhat in the hell are we doing?â€
Cruz warned if the economy is still shut down come November, Joe Biden will win the White House, Democrats will control the Senate and â€œweâ€™ll be meeting in a much smaller lunch room,â€ according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida left saying itâ€™s wrong to â€œbail outâ€ cash-strapped states. â€œFlorida taxpayers are not going to pay for New Yorkâ€™s expenses,â€ he said.
Easing the payroll tax is dividing Trumpâ€™s party because it does little to help out-of-work Americans and adds to the debt load. The tax is already being deferred for employers under the previous virus relief package. Supporters say cutting it now for employees would put money in peopleâ€™s pockets and stimulate the economy.
Democrats panned the emerging GOP outline as insufficient and blamed the pandemicâ€™s devastation on Trumpâ€™s inaction.
â€œIt is the Trump virus,â€ Pelosi said Tuesday.
At the start of the outbreak, Congress approved a massive $2.2 trillion aid package in March, the biggest of its kind in U.S. history. McConnell at the time said he wanted to â€œpauseâ€ new spending. Pelosi took a different approach, pressing ahead to pass her $3 trillion bill in May.
In the interim the virus crisis has only deepened and Congress is left with few options but to intervene.
Democrats are calling for $430 billion to re-open schools, bigger unemployment benefits and direct aid checks, and a sweeping $1 trillion for state and local governments. It includes a fresh round of mortgage and rental assistance, new federal health and safety requirements for workers.
With Republicans divided, the White House and McConnell will have to compromise with Democrats to pass any bill through Congress.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Mary Clare Jalonick and Padmananda Rama contributed.