Second stimulus checks: Will direct payments make it into a relief deal?

Washington-DC

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — As the days tick down toward the end of the year, a second round of stimulus checks to Americans remains in limbo as lawmakers continue to find themselves at odds over the provisions of a comprehensive COVID-19 bill.

Late Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a new COVID relief proposal Tuesday that would include money for state and local governments, liability protections, as well as a round of $600 direct payments – half of what Americans received almost seven months ago.

The $916 billion proposal would eliminate a $300 per week employment benefit favored by a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators to fund the stimulus payments.

Mnuchin’s announcement built on the $908 billion compromise deal that brought Senate Republicans and House Democrats back to the negotiating table last week.

On Tuesday, Mnuchin said in a statement that he spoke with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, on behalf of President Trump to offer a $916 billion proposal that would include money for state and local governments, as well as robust liability protections for businesses, schools and universities.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to Mnuchin’s entreaty with a statement that said they would prefer to let a bipartisan group take the lead.

While many Republicans lawmakers have questioned the financial consequences of a second round of stimulus checks, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Tuesday he wants President Donald Trump to veto any package that doesn’t include the checks.

“I think there’s an obligation here to help people get back up on their feet,” Hawley said. “You’ve got a lot of working people who have jobs but their hours are reduced, they’ve taken pay cuts; maybe they’ve got kids at home because of COVID distance learning. Those folks need relief.”

Hawley said he has spoken directly to Trump and that the president supports his push for stimulus checks. It remains to be seen whether enough fellow Republicans will get on board with Hawley’s ultimatum.

Meantime, negotiations continue over a separate $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill which Speaker Pelosi hopes will include direct payments. Talks hit a stumbling block Monday over a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., liability protection for businesses, schools and organizations from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

If Congress is unable to reach an agreement on the omnibus package, lawmakers would be forced to pass a continuing resolution that would push unresolved spending bills into the new year.

A September Gallup poll showed 7 in 10 Americans supported another round of checks, including 82% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 66% of independents.

Moody’s Analytics reports that over 12 million Americans are more than $5,000 behind on rent payments.

“I’m not against (stimulus checks),” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. “I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it.”

He said the checks are not his first priority.

“My focus really has been, if we do nothing else, we’ve got to keep these small businesses afloat,” Rubio said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the fate of direct payments depends on how much Republicans are willing to spend. He said the checks would add $300 billion to the current $908 billion package. But, he noted, Trump’s support could push Republicans to move, even if they’re unhappy with the total price tag.

“That could change if President Trump wants to send those checks,” Durbin said.

The $916 billion Mnuchin offer, the separate ongoing talks among key rank-and-file senators, and the shifting demands by the White House all add up to muddled, confusing prospects for a long-delayed COVID-19 aid package. The pressure to deliver is intense — all sides say failure isn’t an option.

The Mnuchin plan resurrects direct payments that are popular with Trump and the public but which are disliked by many Republican lawmakers who say they are costly and send too much aid to people who do not need it. Democrats generally embrace the idea.

“Right now we’re targeting struggling families, failing businesses, health care workers and we don’t have a stimulus check to every single person, regardless of need,” said Collins.

McConnell said Congress will not adjourn without providing the long-overdue COVID-19 relief. He had previously said he would not put any pandemic relief bill on the floor that does not include the liability shield, which is being sought by businesses, universities, nonprofits, and others that are reopening during the pandemic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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