By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
U.S. Senate Republicans on Monday proposed a coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, paving the way for talks with Democrats on how to help Americans as expanded unemployment benefits for millions of workers expire this week.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the plan, expected to represent about $1 trillion in spending, a “tailored and targeted” plan focused on getting children back to school and employees back to work and protecting corporations from lawsuits, while slashing the expiring supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 a week by two-thirds.
The plan sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared to their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May, while some Senate Republicans criticized it as too expensive.
McConnell said the plan would include direct payments to Americans of $1,200 each, as well as incentives for manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in the United States, rather than China. It also includes new funds and loans to help small businesses.
Republicans want to reduce the expanded unemployment benefit from the current $600 per week, which expires on Friday, to $200, paid in addition to state unemployment benefits, and to extend the program for two months. The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.
The extra unemployment funds – exceeding the former wages of some workers – have been a sticking point for many Republicans, who say they encourage Americans to stay home rather than go back to work.
Democrats, in turn, have decried the Republican delay in writing more legislation as U.S. coronavirus cases passed the 4 million mark, a milestone for a pandemic that has killed roughly 150,000 people in the United States and thrown tens of millions out of work.
The Democratic-led House in May passed its $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill known as the “HEROES Act,” but the Republican-led Senate refused to consider it.
McConnell on Monday referred to the House bill as a “socialist manifesto” and urged Democrats to work with Republicans on their plan, called the “HEALS Act.”
“We have one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery,” McConnell said. “The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive, and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads.”
The proposal will include “strong legal liability protection” for corporations, a top priority of Republicans.
The immediate opposition from some of McConnell’s fellow Republicans as well as from Democrats signaled a tough round of negotiations ahead.
“The answer to these challenges will not simply be shoveling cash out of Washington. The answer to these challenges will be getting people back to work,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz told reporters. “As it stands now, I think it’s likely that you’ll see a number of Republicans in opposition to this bill and expressing serious concerns.”
Some Republicans had complained about the high price tag; the federal government has already spent $3.7 trillion to cushion the economic blow from pandemic-forced shutdowns.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican plan did too little, too slowly to help Americans facing eviction from their homes because the pandemic has made it impossible for them to go to work.
“The Republican plan is weak tea, when our problems need a much stronger brew,” Schumer said in the Senate.
Democrats had warned they would oppose a Republican proposal to protect businesses and schools from certain liability lawsuits as they reopen with the coronavirus pandemic still raging.