A bipartisan group of senators, including Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, unveiled a $908 billion emergency coronavirus relief plan Tuesday that would extend unemployment insurance, restart Paycheck Protection Program and fund vaccine distribution.
The package, which also has support from 50 Democratic and Republican House members, who make up the Problem Solvers Caucus, offers a COVID-19 emergency relief framework to help students, families, businesses, workers and health care providers during the health crisis.
The informal group has talked almost daily the past two weeks, including over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
“COVID has created a crisis, and in a crisis the people expect Congress to act,” Romney said at news conference in Washington, D.C. “It’s simply unacceptable for us not to respond to help in this circumstance.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said the group does not have assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to bring any legislation up for a vote.
Romney said he has talked to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the negotiations and he offered advice on the numbers but doesn’t know where the White House stands on the proposal.
McConnell shot down the proposal Tuesday, calling instead for a “targeted relief bill.”
“We just don’t have time to waste time,” he told reporters.
McConnell said a relief package obviously needs bipartisan support but it also needs President Donald Trump’s signature.
“Are we actually making a law or are we just making a point?” he said. “I think the way you make a law for sure is you know you got a presidential signature, so we’ll see how it goes forward.”
McConnell said he has spoken to the White House and is circulating a package among Republicans that the president would sign, though be didn’t reveal any details.
Senators described their proposal as a bridge to help struggling businesses, unemployed Americans and front-line health care workers through March 31. They also said it was the result of a lot of give-and-take and that not everyone would be happy with the result.
“This is not a $1.8 trillion stimulus bill. This is a relief measure, half that amount,” Romney said.
The plan combines $560 billion repurposed from the massive COVID-19 package Congress passed in March and $348 billion in new money, he said.
The compromise proposal includes $228 billion for a second round of PPP loans, $180 billion in additional unemployment insurance (an additional $300 a week for 18 weeks) and $160 billion for state, local and tribal governments.
“We have tried to address every need of the neediest in our country,” Manchin said.
The plan also has a provision Romney pushed for to temporarily suspend coronavirus liability lawsuits to allow states time to enact their own liability protections.
“Let me note that any state that doesn’t put in place protections hasn’t been thinking this through very carefully because if I were CEO, I would never think about putting a new business in a state that doesn’t have liability protection of COVID,” Romney said, adding that Utah has already done so.
Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, belongs to the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is comprised of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans. He said Congress should do its job and show results.
“Millions of hardworking families and small businesses are struggling as a result of this pandemic. We should seize this bipartisan opportunity to get something done and help them receive the boost they need now,” he said.
The relief plan comes as communities across the country are shuttering restaurants and other businesses to fend off another wave of the virus that is causing illness and death at unprecedented levels.
Congress has been at a stalemate over extending pandemic relief since last summer. Democrats have opposed the GOP’s plans for liability protections, while Republicans have resisted providing tens of billions of dollars in state aid.
“It’s inexcusable for us to leave town without an agreement,” Manchin said, vowing to stay in Washington until it gets done. He said a bill could be ready in the next two weeks.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it’s “absolutely essential” for Congress to act amid the second or third wave of the pandemic.
“We’ve worked night and day throughout the Thanksgiving recess because we recognize that families all across America are struggling, that businesses are closing, that hospitals are overwhelmed,” she said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said it would be “stupidity on steroids” if Congress left for Christmas without passing an interim relief package.
“While this perhaps will offend some folks on both sides, we think it is a good framework, and we are committed to doing what it takes to get it done,” he said.
Other senators who make up the group are Bill Cassidy, R-La., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Angus King, I-Maine, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.