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Senate GOP Unveils $1T Virus Relief Package

By Andrew Kragie · July 27, 2020, 9:52 PM EDT

Republican senators on Monday released a package of bills meant to provide further relief amid the coronavirus pandemic and continue cushioning its economic impact with new liability protections for employers and schools, additional funding for testing and health care, and a wide variety of tax incentives.

The slew of individual GOP bills, said to authorize about $1 trillion in new spending, emerged from at least seven committees after being delayed by disagreements among Senate Republicans and the Trump administration. The Republican proposals mark the party's starting point in negotiations with Democrats, who remain united behind the sprawling $3 trillion Heroes Act that passed the House in May.

An aide said cross-party negotiations would begin Monday evening with a meeting between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the package an appropriately sized response.

"We have one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery," he said Monday on the Senate floor. "The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive. And they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads."

However, Senate Republicans were not united behind the package, as some conservatives balked at the cost. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the package should have focused more on restarting the economy.

"We had several bills at the height of the crisis that were designed to be emergency relief bills," he told reporters Monday. "This shouldn't be yet another emergency relief bill. ... We need to be cutting taxes that are making it harder for small businesses to survive and repealing regulations that make it harder for them."

Democrats immediately took to the Senate floor to lambaste Republicans for taking more than two months since passage of the Heroes Act to present a proposal. Schumer dismissed a "totally inadequate" package with a "series of small piecemeal ideas."

A bipartisan relief bill passed in March had provided a $600-a-week boost to unemployment insurance, which is provided by states at varying levels. Democrats have pushed to continue the full supplement, while the Republican proposal calls to lower the federal supplement to $200 a week so that fewer low-wage workers would earn more on unemployment. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called that plan "a slap in the face for the 30 million Americans relying on lifeline unemployment insurance benefits" that "adds insult to infection." He contrasted a lack of new funding for food assistance with a proposal to boost tax cuts for business meals.

McConnell has long said his "red line" for negotiations is coronavirus-related liability protections for employers, schools, health care providers and others. The Safe to Work Act would put such disputes in federal courts and protect parties except in cases of "gross negligence or willful misconduct." When people sue over coronavirus exposure, they would have to list the places they went and people they encountered in the two weeks before experiencing symptoms. They would also need a medical expert supporting the complaint.

Punitive damages would only be available in cases of willful misconduct and could not exceed compensatory damages. Overall awards would be reduced by the amount plaintiffs received from sources like insurance and government reimbursement. The bill would allow punitive damages against people who send certain coronavirus-related demand letters. The provisions would last through at least October 2024.

Republicans included a bipartisan proposal for a second round of forgivable loans to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. New requirements would limit eligibility to companies with fewer than 300 workers that have seen a 50% drop in revenue. There would be a simplified but not automatic forgiveness application process for loans under $2 million. Another $100 billion would go to long-term, low-interest loans for certain industries.

On health care, the bill calls for $26 billion for vaccine development and distribution, $25 billion for health care providers, $16 billion for testing and $15.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health. Another provision would extend federal reimbursement for telehealth at least through the pandemic's end.

While the Democrats' Heroes Act includes more than $1 trillion for state and local governments, the Republican plan does not include any new funding but instead gives more flexibility in using $150 billion previously allocated.

Some $105 billion would go to public and private schools and universities, with two-thirds of that available only to institutions that hold in-person classes, fulfilling President Donald Trump's threat to cut funding for schools that don't reopen. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that remote schooling does not require paying or protecting certain staff like school bus drivers, but some schools have said they still incur major costs with virtual learning, as many districts have to distribute free computers and other technology.

Alexander said the plan would also pause payments for federal student loans for the unemployed and cap all borrowers' payments at 10% of disposable income.

The package includes a plethora of tax incentives, chiefly an employee retention tax credit. Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, confirmed there would be another round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he was also proposing to let businesses again write off 100% of meals and entertainment, which he and Trump argue will spur spending at struggling restaurants.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said his portion of the proposal includes tax incentives for manufacturers to move production to the U.S., especially for personal protective equipment, 90% of which he said is imported from China. It also includes the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, a bipartisan bill meant to prevent China and other countries from filching intellectual property developed on U.S. campuses. Also thrown in was a bipartisan domestic mining proposal, the American Mineral Security Act, which would determine critical minerals and call for expedited permitting.

The package also includes $1.75 billion to build a new FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., which McConnell said was at the behest of the White House. Democrats have suggested the Trump administration wants to keep the building where it is to avoid making space for a competitor to Trump's nearby hotel. Before he took office, the bureau was planning a new campus in the suburbs. Graham said he's "not particularly" supportive of the administration's proposal.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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