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House coronavirus package hits snag

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/16/2020 By John Bresnahan and Marianne LeVine
Mitch McConnell wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. © J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Senate will return to Washington Monday to work on a multi-billion dollar coronavirus package, but the bill remains hung up in negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House, according to multiple Capitol Hill sources.

The Senate is expected this week to take up the massive bipartisan emergency package from the House to address the pandemic, after canceling its week-long recess. But much uncertainty remains over timing and logistics, despite mounting public pressure and the stock market taking a serious hit as the global pandemic continues to spread and daily life in the U.S. is severely disrupted.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were still working on the details Monday.

House sources said Monday that "major differences" remained between the White House and House Democrats over what was adopted and needed to be changed. This is slowing down the time table for House completion of the bill and sending it onto the Senate.

Pelosi and administration officials still remain hopeful they can achieve a workable compromise, but were tight lipped about the state of play on Monday.

The House passed its emergency package early Saturday morning but needs to make some technical corrections. Adding to the uncertainty on timing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) is threatening to hold up the bill until he reviews the corrections.

It’s also unclear how swiftly the Senate will act, once the House finishes up. Mnuchin is expected to attend the Senate Republican lunch Tuesday — suggesting that he may need to sell the deal to some GOP members.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday evening that “senators on both sides are carefully reviewing the details and are eager to act swiftly to help American workers, families, and small businesses navigate this challenging time.”

He added that taking up the legislation this week is only the beginning. Over the weekend McConnell spoke with the chairs of several committees to discuss additional steps to provide further financial assistance, assist small businesses and better support the health care system.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) is asking members to submit ideas for an additional stimulus package by noon Monday, according to a Senate aide.

Some Republicans are already expressing doubt that the Senate will approve the House package without changes. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) predicted Monday on "Fox & Friends" that the House coronavirus bill as written will not pass the Senate, raising questions about its paid sick leave provisions.

"It doesn't go far enough and it doesn't go fast enough," Cotton said. "Most of the measures in this bill are something that the senators will support, I believe. ... But we worry that the bill setting up a new and complicated system relying on businesses giving paid sick leave and then getting a refundable tax credit that won't move quickly enough and could put pressure on those businesses to lay workers off."

Aaron MacLean, Cotton's legislative director, sent an email to his fellow legislative directors Monday, saying the Arkansas Republican "feels strongly that the Senate should not accept the Pelosi-Mnuchin plan as a given for 'Phase II.'” He is urging the Senate to "adopt its own plan for economic assistance" with tax rebates, changes to the qualifications for unemployment insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and a more expansive program for low-interest loans to businesses. He has made his view clear to the White House.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement that he hopes the Senate “will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm — or, if it won't, pass nothing at all.”

The package comes as the coronavirus has made its way to Capitol Hill, with at least two D.C. staffers — one working for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and for Rep. David Schweikert's (R-Ariz.) — testing positive. And a Delaware-based staffer for Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) also positive.

While the Senate waits on the House to work through its technical corrections, it will spend Monday focused on moving forward with legislation to renew and reform provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those provisions expired over the weekend and McConnell is pushing the Senate to move quickly. The Senate as of now must first deal with renewing the FISA provisions before tackling the coronavirus package unless lawmakers take up the emergency bill by voice vote.

But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) urged the Senate Sunday to prioritize the coronavirus package over FISA.

“FISA needs to be carefully reviewed. That takes time. That can wait," the Missouri Republican tweeted. "The emergency response to [coronavirus] should be the first order of business in the Senate tomorrow. There is no reason for this to take days & days."

Meanwhile Senate Democrats spent the weekend criticizing McConnell for sending the Senate home Thursday, one day before House Democrats reached a deal with the Trump administration on the emergency package. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is calling on McConnell to take up the House legislation immediately on Monday, without changes.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged McConnell to have the Senate pass the House coronavirus package and a short-term FISA extension by unanimous consent, given the recommendations from health officials to practice social distancing.

“Senators and staff are working to serve their states locally as best they can, and with unanimous consent for these measures there is no valid reason to force extra travel this week," Durbin said. "Given the fact that we can and should pass the Coronavirus package, and any subsequent recommended bipartisan fixes to it, by UC immediately, your decision to call us back to Washington this week is unnecessary."

In an effort to practice social distancing, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has told members that Tuesday's caucus lunch will be done via conference call, according to a spokesperson.

The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association sent a letter Monday to McConnell and Pelosi asking Congress "provide additional supplemental emergency funding of at least $1 billion," as the health care system responds to the outbreak.

The confusion about when the Senate will act on the legislative package comes as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States jumped to more than 3,500 over the weekend. And on Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control recommended Americans cancel or postpone gatherings of 50 or more people for eight weeks.

Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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