Agreement elusive on U.S. coronavirus relief as bipartisan group releases plan details

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday that lawmakers were still striving for agreement on COVID-19 aid, as a bipartisan group released details of their proposal and the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on a one-week funding bill to provide more time for a deal.

With agreement elusive, the House was poised to vote on Wednesday afternoon on a measure to prevent federal programs from running out of money on Friday at midnight (0500 GMT on Saturday) by extending current funding levels until Dec. 18.

The move gives Congress seven more days to enact a broader, $1.4 trillion “omnibus” spending measure, to which congressional leaders hope to attach the long-awaited COVID-19 relief package – if they can reach a deal on both fronts.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate released a summary of their $908 billion plan aimed at breaking the months-long stalemate between the parties over more coronavirus relief.

The proposal would extend for 16 weeks pandemic-related unemployment insurance programs due to expire at the end of the month. The measure would also provide an extra $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for 16 weeks, from the end of December into April.

“We are literally on the five-yard line now,” said Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer, a member of the bipartisan group. “We have no choice but to get this done.”

The summary said there was agreement in principle on two thorny issues: liability protections for businesses desired by Republicans and $160 billion in aid to state and local governments sought by Democrats. Lawmakers said they were still working on details.

On Tuesday evening, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin weighed in for the first time since before the November election, saying he had presented a $916 billion relief proposal to Pelosi that includes money for state and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

But Pelosi and Schumer said they viewed the bipartisan negotiations as the best hope for COVID-19 relief.

Other Democrats also reacted cautiously to Mnuchin’s proposal, asking why it lacked supplementary benefits for the unemployed while including direct checks of $600 for all individuals.

“How can anybody say that I’m gonna send another check to people that already have a paycheck and job, and not send anything to the unemployed? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a member of the bipartisan group, told reporters.

After the vote Wednesday on the stopgap funding measure in the Democratic-run House, the Republican-led Senate is expected to follow by the end of the week, then send the measure to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

Congress approved $3 trillion in aid in the spring to mitigate the effects of shutdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but legislators have not been able to agree on any additional help since.

The pandemic has roared back to levels surpassing those seen early in the crisis, with more than 200,000 new infections reported each day and fresh shutdowns in some areas. More than 287,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far, and millions have been thrown out of work.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Peter Cooney, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)