House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was at the White House Friday morning to discuss the matter, according to two officials with knowledge of the visit, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose it. President Trump announced he would be holding a mid-afternoon news conference on the coronavirus.
“I think we’re very close to getting this done,” Mnuchin said Friday morning on CNBC. “The president is absolutely committed that this will be an entire government effort.”
“We’re at a place where we need to act,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
But House Republicans appeared uneasy about some provisions in the package, which expands federal spending on Medicaid and provides for federal reimbursement for paid sick leave as well as family and medical leave.
House GOP leaders were not involved in the negotiations and their offices were silent Friday morning on the state of play. McCarthy’s unannounced visit to the White House suggested eleventh-hour efforts to reach an accord.
Rank-and-file House Republicans were in the dark, and had just gotten text of the deal late Friday morning.
“I’m not gonna vote for something just because we need to vote for a coronavirus bill,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.). “If it’s got things in there I don’t think are appropriate, I’ll vote against it. But I gotta read it, see what it is.”
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), a deputy whip, told reporters: “At this point I just don’t know.”
“I suspect for a lot of Republican members its going to be very important” to have Trump’s blessing, Carter said.
Text of the legislation had not been publicly released Friday amid the uncertainty. Democrats had been prepared to move forward to a vote with or without GOP support, and they could pass the legislation on their own. But if the bill lacks GOP support in the House, and does not have the full backing of the administration, its passage could be imperiled in the Senate.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), exiting a leadership meeting in Pelosi’s office, said that the last issue was support from House Republicans.
“We have a bill we know that will pass. We have enough Democrats to pass it. I hope that they’ll get on board with us,” Bustos said.
The Senate had been expected to take up the legislation next week, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) canceled a recesss planned for next week so his members could act on a coronavirus package.
Only last week Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending plan to address public health needs arising from the crisis. But with the stock market plunging, lay-offs beginning, schools around the country shutting down, and entire sports leagues shuttering their seasons, the need for a robust economic response became glaring. Lawmakers watched as the Dow Jones industrial average suffered its largest one-day point loss in history, dropping more than 2,000 points, although stocks began to recover on Friday.
There are now well over 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and more than three dozen deaths, numbers that are expected to exponentially rise. And increasing numbers of lawmakers are announcing plans to shut down their offices and self-quarantine following brushes with infected individuals.
“Time is of the essence, and this bill must be passed and sent to the Senate,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to fellow Democrats Thursday night. “The House will then get to work on a third emergency response package that will take further effective action that protects the health, economic security and well-being of the American people.”
The emerging agreement builds upon a bill House Democrats released late Wednesday that included a number of provisions Republicans opposed, setting off hours of frenzied negotiations on Capitol Hill to reach bipartisan consensus.
A final hang-up was over a paid family and medical leave provision, with Republicans pushing to structure it in a way that it could be implemented quickly and avoid undue burdens on employers. By Friday morning that issue had appeared largely resolved with the administration, but there seemed to be lingering concerns among House Republicans.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity Friday to describe internal thinking, said they were at an “uncomfortable moment.”
As originally introduced, the House bill included a $2 billion boost to state unemployment insurance programs, more than $1 billion in nutritional aid, a new paid-leave benefit for employees affected by the outbreak and an increase in federal Medicaid spending, as well as a guarantee of free coronavirus testing. Republicans viewed the initial legislation as overly broad, and Trump criticized it as full of “the goodies that they haven’t been able to get for the last 25 years.”
Through hours of phone calls and staff-level negotiations Thursday, Pelosi and Mnuchin agreed to narrow the legislation to focus more squarely on impacts from the coronavirus and those hurt by it.
Lawmakers of both parties were determined to deliver an economic relief package before leaving for recess. “Let’s try to accomplish something that we can agree on and get it done,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), summing up the sentiments of many.
Trump is advancing costly ideas of his own — including a payroll-tax holiday that could drain tens of billions of dollars from Social Security. That idea has gotten limited traction among both parties on Capitol Hill, and congressional leaders decided to pursue a narrower package that could win GOP support, leaving broader measures, such as the payroll-tax cut, for another day.
The White House was also moving to assemble its own relief plan, one that included requests for congressional action as well as administrative actions that the Trump administration could take unilaterally.
White House officials held meetings Thursday to hammer out details of the administration’s economic response package as promised by Trump in his national address Wednesday night, including some kind of paid-sick-leave plan that could be enacted administratively. Critical details remained unresolved, however.
As originally written, the House paid-leave plan relied on a two-pronged approach, combining a temporary program that would be administered by the Social Security Administration that would provide up to $4,000 a month to affected households, with a new permanent sick-leave mandate for U.S. employers. Only firms employing fewer than 50 people would be eligible for federal assistance in meeting that mandate, which was strongly opposed by the administration.
Those plans underwent significant changes over the day of talks, and in the final hours negotiators were haggling over a less ambitious family and medical leave expansion proposal from Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), which would expand the number of workers who can take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act while drawing down wage replacement. Employees would get two-thirds of their salary replaced up to $4,000 a month, and employees would be reimbuirsed by the federal government. Separately, employees would also be able to take 14 days of paid sick leave, with the government reimbursing employers for part of the cost.
“It’s about paid sick leave. It’s about family and medical leave. It’s about unemployment insurance. It’s about our children who are out of school and need to be fed. It’s about seniors and peopel with disabilities,” Pelosi said. “This goes to the actual heart of what our purpose is.”
Another controversial provision in the original bill would have increased the percentage of Medicaid spending borne by the federal government by 8 percentage points through Sept. 30, 2021. That would be a welcome relief to states, which could see an influx of Medicaid enrollees in a time of economic crisis. But the price tag for the federal government could have been vast — stretching easily into the tens of billions of dollars.
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