US congressional leaders are facing growing pressure to agree on compromise fiscal stimulus legislation, as support grew for a new slimmed-down package worth $748bn championed by a bipartisan group of senators.
The proposal, which includes aid to small businesses and funding for unemployment benefits, represents a last chance before the holiday recess for an agreement on government support as the US struggles with surging coronavirus infections.
To make it more palatable to both parties on Capitol Hill, the moderate lawmakers stripped out highly contested provisions regarding liability protections for businesses and assistance for states and local governments. That has lowered the price tag of the package from $908bn.
On Tuesday, the plan gained the backing of the Center for American Progress, a centre-left think-tank that is influential within the Democratic party, calling it “an important first step on the road to recovery”.
“While CAP has repeatedly called for a larger, more comprehensive relief bill . . . we believe that the urgency of the situation calls for immediate action to avert what could become a humanitarian and economic disaster and imperil distribution of the vaccine,” said Wendy Stachelberg, executive vice-president at CAP.
The group’s president, Neera Tanden, has been tapped to be the next White House budget director by Joe Biden, president-elect, who has also been pushing Congress to reach a deal.
On Monday, Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and Senate minority whip, announced his support for the agreement, suggesting that the party’s leadership, which had long held out for relief measures worth more than $2tn, was willing to accept a far smaller number. “This package does not include everything I think we need. But, it is an honest compromise,” he said in a statement.
“We must provide some emergency relief for the American people before we go home for the holidays,” he added, calling on Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate majority leader, to call a vote on the bill this week.
US lawmakers have been under mounting pressure to reach an agreement since the November election in the mist of a big surge in coronavirus cases and evidence of a sharp slowdown in the labour market.
In the absence of any significant negotiations between the Trump administration and congressional leaders, the bipartisan Senate group has taken the lead in trying to forge a solution.
The goal on Capitol Hill is to reach a deal that can be passed by the end of this week along with legislation to fund government operations, although the timing may still slip.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, held a call with Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, on Monday night in which they recognised the “need to advance a final agreement . . . together and quickly this week”, according to an account of the conversation by Drew Hammill, Ms Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.
In a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, Mr McConnell seemed willing also seemed ready to embrace the plan. “Either 100 Senators will be here shaking our heads, slinging blame and offering excuses about why we still have not been able to make a law . . . [or] we will break for the holidays having sent another huge dose of relief out the door for the people who need it,” he said. “So let’s get this done.”
The US Chamber of Commerce, the biggest American business lobby group, which has championed the measures opposed by Democrats to shield companies from lawsuits related to the pandemic, also backed the limited deal.
“Partial agreement is better than no agreement, and it is imperative that Congress advance aid for small businesses and non-profits, extension of unemployment programmes, funding for schools and day care centres, and resources to support vaccinations before the end of the year,” said Neil Bradley, the group’s chief policy officer.
But opposition to the compromise threatens to derail the bill. Some Republicans believe the cost is still too high, while Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who unsuccessfully challenged Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, said any deal must include direct stimulus cheques to struggling Americans.
Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, agreed. “I don’t get why so-called ‘emergency relief’ packages for #COVID19 don’t include direct assistance to working families. Working people waiting in food lines & unable to make rent is not an emergency?,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.