Every day for the past 29 days, the United States has reported over 100,000 new cases of COVID-19. More Americans were hospitalized with COVID on Wednesday than ever before — and the nation’s daily COVID-19 death toll hit a record 2,804. Epidemiologists are warning that the nation is on pace to see 4,000 COVID deaths a day by year’s end. The combination of such mass death and falling temperatures will likely trigger a spike in small-business bankruptcies (which have already reached catastrophic levels), a surge in weekly job losses (already at 778,000 and rising), and more widespread poverty (which was already at 11.3 percent back in October, when public-health conditions were less dire than they are now). Absent congressional action, as this winter of discontent descends, eviction protections for renters and what remains of federal aid to the jobless will expire.
The prospect of such widespread economic and epidemiological carnage appears to be eroding the Republican Party’s principled opposition to allowing large blue cities to function (by letting them recoup a small portion of the funding they send to the federal government, so that they can keep the trains running).
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators got together and brokered a $908 billion compromise relief package (that’s $408 billion more than Mitch McConnell has been proposing but roughly half of what Steve Mnuchin reportedly offered Nancy Pelosi before Election Day). The outline included $300 billion in small-business aid, $160 billion in fiscal relief for state and local governments, a $300-a-week federal unemployment benefit for America’s jobless, $25 billion in rental assistance, and tens of billions for child care, food aid, and vaccine distribution. The proposal would also establish a temporary liability shield to insulate employers from COVID-related lawsuits, a priority for the GOP and sticking point for Democrats in past negotiations. To the disappointment of many, the package did not include $1,200 stimulus checks, presumably because the moderates who brokered it felt compelled to keep their bill under the (arbitrary) threshold of $1 trillion.
Twenty-four hours later, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that they considered the proposal an appropriate starting point for renewed leadership talks. But McConnell pressed ahead with his own more austere proposal, which featured $0 in enhanced unemployment benefits, $0 in fiscal relief for state and city governments, $0 in funding for transit systems, a liability shield for businesses, and a provision that would prevent a Biden administration from unilaterally restoring the Fed’s lending programs.
On Thursday afternoon, however, several Republicans — including a couple in leadership — signaled an openness to the bipartisan package. John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip, said that Democrats’ embrace of the bipartisan bill “represents progress,” though expressed concern about its provisions on state and local aid. Other Republicans voicing grudging non-opposition to the framework included Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Kevin Cramer, Shelley Wellons Moore Capito, and Lindsey Graham.
Shifting back into his former persona as moderate deal-maker, Graham told the Washington Post that he’s “never been more hopeful that we’ll get a bill … the $908 billion bill, that’s the one I support.” More interestingly, he suggested that he’d lobbied President Trump on it “extensively.” To this point, the White House has given McConnell’s bill its official approval but withheld support from the bipartisan one.
The Senate GOP’s right flank remains cranky about the latter, what with its “hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out wasteful states,” in Rick Scott’s phrasing. It’s unclear whether such bellyaching will prevent McConnell from allowing a vote on the final version of the bipartisan bill. But the Senate Majority Leader allows the upper chamber to take up such legislation, it looks like it would pass.