WASHINGTON — Political squabbling over what Congress should do next to address the coronavirus pandemic has begun, and the only point of agreement so far seems to be that the fourth relief bill is likely weeks from being passed, if not longer.
Just days after President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion-plus economic stimulus package, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began floating trial balloons of what the new package should look like, including potentially another direct payment to Americans, expanded paid sick leave and infrastructure projects.
“Our first bills were about addressing the emergency. The third bill was about mitigation. The fourth bill would be about recovery. Emergency, mitigation, recovery,” Pelosi told reporters on a conference call Monday.
Meanwhile, Republicans urged patience as the government works to implement the mammoth legislation they just completed. That bill, the single largest economic stimulus measure ever passed, reaches into many facets of American life, including government-backed loans to keep businesses afloat, expanded unemployment insurance, a single direct $1,200 payout to many people and billions of dollars for hospitals and governments.
“First, we need to see what the effect of the current bill is. The Treasury, of course, is wrestling with all this complicated effort to speed checks to individuals and small businesses to get us through this period until the healthcare pandemic begins to subside,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “We need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out.”
Unlike the previous three packages, which were drafted, negotiated, considered and passed in a matter of days — lightning speed for the lumbering House and Senate — what comes next could take weeks or months.
Both the House and Senate are not scheduled to return to Washington until at least April 20, allowing members to stay home with their families. The last bill was largely negotiated by Senate leaders and the White House, and some House Democrats felt their priorities were ignored. The bill before that was largely negotiated between House leaders and the White House, with some Senate Republicans feeling their priorities were ignored.
House committees are already working remotely to determine what to include in the next package, Pelosi told reporters Monday, and intend to move quickly when they return.
“I do think that it is really important that as soon as we are here, we are ready to pass legislation,” she said.
The bill should include another round of direct payments to help the millions of Americans stuck in their homes to pay their bills, more direct aid to cities and states facing a drop in tax revenue and more safety equipment for people employed at hospitals, nursing homes and in essential jobs like food distribution, Pelosi said.
And Congress should consider things that didn’t make it into the previous legislation, she said, like expanded paid family medical leave, new safety regulations for workplaces to deal with airborne viruses and money to shore up pensions.
She also suggested the next package might be the time for Congress to consider an infrastructure package that would include improvements to broadband, water systems and the energy grid.
Some items, like an infrastructure package, have broad bipartisan popularity in theory, but have proven exceedingly difficult to pass in the past. Trump appeared to embrace the idea of infrastructure legislation Tuesday morning.
“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4,” he said in a tweet.
In an interview with The New York Times, Pelosi suggested that the next package could provide a way to reinstate the state and local tax deduction that was substantially reduced in the 2017 Republican tax bill. Such a move would primarily benefit people in high-tax coastal states, including California, and members of both parties have been leery of the idea.
Republicans immediately dismissed many of Pelosi’s ideas as a Democratic wish list.
“I would think any kind of bill coming out of the House I would look at like Reagan suggested we look at the Russians — trust, but verify,” McConnell said. “I’m not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a separate interview with Hewitt that Congress’ full focus should be on public health.
“We shouldn’t look at this as an opportunity to pass our political outbox or ideological agenda. We ought to be all about solving the problem, and that is the public health problem and economic consequences associated with it,” Cornyn said.
On MSNBC on Tuesday, Pelosi said negotiators had already agreed that “everything that we’re doing is specific to the coronavirus challenge” in the next round of legislation and that it wouldn’t become a “wish list.”
“We’ve acted in a bipartisan way every step of the way and we’ll continue to do so. We may have our differences, but we have to find our common ground,” Pelosi said.
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