WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans and the White House reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday for more testing funds in the next COVID-19 relief package, but deep disagreements over the scope of the $1 trillion in federal aid have forced a shift in strategy.
Facing a GOP revolt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preparing to roll out a “handful” of COVID-19 aid bills instead of a single package, according to a top lawmaker involved in the negotiations. The legislation is now expected as soon as Thursday.
“Very productive meeting,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said while exiting a late session at the Capitol.
A key holdup remains President Donald Trump's push for a payroll tax cut, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. Hardly any GOP senators support the idea. Instead, McConnell and some Republicans prefer another round of direct $1,200 cash payments to Americans.
Mnuchin said the negotiators have agreed to an amount on direct payments, but declined to share details.
The rest of the legislation is taking shape even as key Senate Republicans are rejecting the overall rescue, which is almost certain to grow. There will be no new money for cash-strapped states and cities, which are clamoring for funds, but they will be provided with additional flexibility to tap existing aid funds.
Republicans propose giving $105 billion to help schools reopen and $15 billion for child care centers to create safe environments for youngsters during the pandemic.
The centerpiece of the GOP effort remains McConnell's liability shield to protect businesses, schools and others from COVID-related lawsuits. The bills will also include tax breaks for businesses to hire and retain workers, and to help shops and workplaces retool with new safety protocols.
Still unresolved is how to phase out the $600 weekly unemployment benefit boost that is expiring, starting Friday.
Republicans appear to be settling on $200 benefit that would ultimately be adjusted according to state jobless benefits rates.