Virus talks drag on liability as Congress preps stopgap aid

Lawmakers are giving themselves more time to sort through their end-of-session business on government spending and COVID-19 relief

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are giving themselves more time to sort through their end-of-session business on government spending and COVID-19 relief, preparing a one-week stopgap spending bill that would prevent a shutdown this weekend.

Disagreements flared Monday over one key provision — a proposed liability shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and organizations that reopen.

Hoyer had previously told lawmakers that this week would probably be the last of the session, but talks are going more slowly than hoped on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill under assembly by senior members of the powerful Appropriations committees. The stopgap measure would prevent a government shutdown through Dec. 18.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet reached agreement on government funding,” Hoyer said.

Three main items of legislation are at issue in the end-of-session agenda: a defense policy bill that President Donald Trump is threatening to veto; the $1.4 trillion governmentwide spending bill; and perhaps $900 billion in long-sought COVID-19 relief.

There are two sets of talks on COVID-19 relief — on the leadership level and by a group of Senate moderates — occurring at the same time, and it’s unclear how the negotiators might sort themselves out, lending an air of confusion to the process.

The bipartisan Senate group was set to meet again Monday evening. But a long weekend of talks pushed senators apart on one difficult negotiation, the proposed liability protection that has been a priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“We have seen some hopeful signs of engagement from our Democratic colleagues, but we have no reason to think the underlying disagreements about policy are going to evaporate overnight,” McConnell said Monday.

Republicans initially proposed a sweeping five-year liability shield, retroactive to December 2019, to protect companies and organizations from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democrats, along with their allies in labor and civil rights groups, roundly dismissed that approach as a danger to workers.

“Granting immunity would make the country less safe at the exact moment when the COVID-19 pandemic is entering a new, dangerous phase,” wrote a coalition of 142 labor and civil rights groups to Congress.

They said “any type of immunity would directly harm Black, Latino, and other workers of color who are overrepresented in ‘essential’ and in-person, reopened jobs.”

Negotiators suggested a scaled back liability shield, but a six-month proposal was panned and there is no agreement yet. The powerful AFL-CIO said Monday it opposes even a short-term liability provision.

It’s clear that McConnell’s Republican majority is demanding the liability protection in exchange for the Democrats’ push for additional money for states and cities battling the COVID-19 crisis.

“The leader had made clear that state and local money is tied to liability protection, so there’s either going to be none for both of those or both of those are going to be provided for,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters. “My hope is we’ll do both.”

If an agreement isn’t possible on the omnibus bill, lawmakers might have no option but to pass another continuing resolution that would keep the government running on autopilot and permit them to punt the unfinished spending bills into next year

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Monday that Trump is comfortable with a deal along the lines of one being put together by a group of Senate moderates and pragmatists. That $900 billion plan does not include direct payments sought by Trump before the election.

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