By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday unveiled a $3 trillion-plus coronavirus relief package with funding for states, businesses, food support and families, only to see the measure flatly rejected by Senate Republicans.
The new legislation, which would more than double Congress’s financial response to the crisis, includes nearly $1 trillion in long-sought assistance for state and local governments that are bearing the brunt of a pandemic that has infected 1,359,000 in the United States and killed at least 80,600.
It also includes $75 billion for testing people for the novel coronavirus, direct payments of up to $6,000 per U.S. household, $10 billion in emergency grants for small business and $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service. The bill would also extend enhanced federal unemployment payments through next January.
The House is due to meet at 9 a.m. EDT on Friday for expected votes on the legislation and on a rules change allowing members to vote by proxy during the pandemic.
But Congress appears to be heading for a legislative stand-off over rival partisan demands, including a Republican push to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the virus and the COVID-19 disease that it causes.
“It’s dead on arrival here,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said of the House bill.
Republicans say they want to hold off on new coronavirus relief legislation to assess the impact of nearly $3 trillion in response assistance that Congress has allocated since early March, as states move to reopen a shuttered U.S. economy. Tens of millions of people have lost jobs.
Similar partisan posturing proceeded the last two major coronavirus relief bills.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected the House measure sight unseen, calling it “a partisan wish list with no chance – no chance – of becoming law.”
“We’re going to insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation if and when we do legislate again and we may well,” he told reporters after the House bill was unveiled.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the initiative’s scope by emphasizing the unprecedented social and economic challenges that coronavirus has foisted on the United States.
“There are those who’ve said let’s just pause. But the families who are suffering know that hunger doesn’t take a pause, the rent doesn’t take a pause, the bills don’t take a pause, the hardship of losing a job or tragically losing a loved one doesn’t take a pause,” she said.
McConnell said he and fellow Senate Republican John Cornyn are spearheading a broad legislative package of liability protections for businesses, schools and government agencies.
McConnell has demanded that the legislation be included in any new coronavirus relief package. But Democrats in both the House and Senate have rejected the idea of liability protections and accused Republicans of trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to usher in long-sought tort reforms.
“Overbroad immunity from any accountability will be, in fact, a poison pill if it is included in the next emergency bill, COVID 4,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told Reuters. Blumenthal sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was due to hold a hearing on the issue later on Tuesday.
With U.S. officials warning that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to new outbreaks, business lobbying groups have been pressing Congress for legal safe harbors to prevent employees, customers and others from suing companies that follow accepted health guidelines.
“We are going to make sure it is the trial lawyers, and not struggling job creators, that will need to clear a very high legal burden,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)