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Senate Democrats block GOP COVID-19 bill



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WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats blocked a $300 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill Thursday, dampening the prospects Congress will pass much-needed financial relief for Americans weathering the coronavirus pandemic ahead of the November election

The bill was defeated in a 52-47 vote, not meeting the 60 needed to break the Democratic filibuster, a mechanism requiring three-fifths of the chamber to agree to end the debate and allow a final vote. One Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted with Democrats in opposing the bill. 

After the chamber failed to move forward, senators voiced skepticism that any movement would be made on a relief package before the election. 

“Along with the pandemic COVID-19, we have a pandemic of politics,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, explaining that the path forward appeared bleak. “It’s a sort of a dead end street, and very unfortunate, but it is what it is.” 

The Republican proposal, dubbed the Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act, included additional unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans, funding for schools and liability protections for businesses and health care facilities. It was never likely to pass as Democrats opposed the bill and their support was needed to pass the chamber. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced the measure Tuesday, its $300 billion total just a fraction of previous coronavirus bills that Democrats and Republicans spent weeks squabbling over. Republicans originally were backing a $1 trillion bill, while Democrats have fought for a sprawling package and passed a $3 trillion in the House earlier this spring.

The continued impasse between Republicans and Democrats, and the trillions of dollars that separates them, leaves little chance a coronavirus stimulus bill will pass Congress before the November election, even while lawmakers in both parties argue there is still hope for a bipartisan compromise and Thursday’s vote would force both sides back to the table. Lawmakers have only weeks left in session before the election and need to also pass a series of spending bills to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said while talks may continue between the White House and Democrats, it appeared very unlikely more financial relief would reach Americans before November. 

“It looks like they don’t want to get to an agreement. And if they don’t want to sit down and talk, I think they think they’re going to have a political victory, but it’s going to be a loss for the American people,” he said of Democrats. “And so my guess is, as of now, unless Pelosi changes her mind, talks to the White House, there’s not gonna be anything done, and it’s sad.”

But some, including Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said all hope was not lost yet though “it looks that way.” 

“You know, you never know around here. Sometimes things look bleak and they revive, and so forth,” he told reporters. 

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Both parties have sought to blame the other for the gridlock as COVID-19 continues to spread and millions go jobless. 

McConnell on Thursday said it was Democrats who were responsible for the stalled relief, arguing the smaller package would provide help to those who need it. 

“Congress has spent months talking – talking – about whether to give the American people more relief as they continue grappling with this pandemic. Today, we are going to vote. Every Senator will be counted,” the Kentucky Republican said before the vote. “Today every Senator will either say they want to send families the relief we can agree to, or they want to send families nothing.”

But Republicans had acknowledged that the proposal stood little chance in passing in the days leading up to Thursday’s vote. Instead, the measure stood to show voters what type of relief the GOP was behind, as polling has continued to show a tough battle for a number of Republican incumbents — races that could allow Democrats to take charge of the chamber. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the measure would allow for a “pointless vote” Thursday and called the bill both “highly partisan” and “emaciated.” 

In a Thursday morning speech on the Senate floor, Schumer said McConnell “claims the bill is an attempt at a bipartisan solution but the bill was drafted solely by Republicans, no input by Democrats and rushed to the floor,” adding that McConnell should “go look up in the dictionary what bipartisanship means. It’s both parties working together.” 

He has explained that the measure includes proposals Democrats would never get behind, such as provisions on school choice and corporate immunity from certain coronavirus-related lawsuits, saying the proposal was offered to help endangered Republicans in November.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., similarly voiced opposition for the proposal.

“Lets not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem,” she said Thursday.

Pelosi’s opposition left little chance it would get to the Democratic-led House if it had  passed the Senate Thursday. 

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Asked Wednesday about the prospects of another relief bill this year, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, one of the lead White House negotiators, told reporters, “I don’t know. We’ll see. I hope there is. It’s important to a lot of people out there.”

Among the provisions in the bill: 

  • A $300 bolster to weekly unemployment benefits – reduced from a $600 boost that expired in July – that will run through Dec. 27. The amount is what President Donald Trump promised the federal government would provide out-of-work Americans in an executive order last month.
  • Liability protections for businesses, hospitals, churches and schools against some COVID-19-related personal injury claims.
  • A second round of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. Businesses will have to have less than 300 employees and show at least a 35% gross revenue reduction compared with last year.
  • A $10 billion loan given to the Postal Service would be forgiven and thus turned into a grant. The Postal Service would be required to offer a report to Congress on how the virus has increased its expenses. 
  • Offers $105 billion through an Education Stabilization Fund for schools as students go back to classes across the country. The bill also includes a two-year tax credit for private schools and other scholarship-granting organizations.
  • $16 billion for coronavirus testing and $31 billion for development of a vaccine and therapeutics.

The measure doesn’t include many top priorities for Democrats – who passed a massive $3 trillion bill in May in the House. It does not include more funding for state and local governments that have seen budget shortcomings, including some that are planning to furlough workers. The measure also does not include another round of stimulus checks for Americans. 

Pelosi and Schumer spent weeks negotiating with the White House on another coronavirus stimulus package in July and August. But talks dissolved as Congress went on a month-long recess with both sides blaming the other as millions of Americans saw bolstered unemployment benefits run dry and a small-business loan program stop. 

With talks in limbo, Trump signed four executive orders in August, hoping to fill the voids left by several programs expiring, including the enhanced unemployment insurance and a moratorium that prevented renters from being evicted.

But questions remain over the legality of the orders, and they have taken weeks to implement, with some experts warning it could be weeks before many unemployed Americans see any additional benefits. 

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

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