The proposal touches on many of the elements under discussion — aid to small businesses and schools, a new round of checks to Americans, more jobless benefits and funding to help with the November elections — while achieving bipartisan consensus on issues that have left the two sides bickering for the past several months, such as money for cash-strapped states and cities.
While the proposal stands little chance of becoming law, and just specifies overall numbers while leaving out many policy details, it represents a rare bipartisan breakthrough given Congress has been locked in a partisan impasse for months after Washington poured $3 trillion in the spring to help an economy ravaged by the pandemic.
The plan, pushed in part by vulnerable lawmakers in both parties, is also a clear recognition that many on Capitol Hill are anxious about Congress’ failure as millions are of out of work and want to ratchet up pressure on congressional leaders to restart talks with the White House.
“People are clearly frustrated,” said one of the members of the 50-person group, which is comprised of rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties, asking for anonymity to discuss the proposal. “A lot of Americans want to see action.”
But with a dwindling number of legislative days left this year, passing such a measure through both chambers of Congress remains doubtful at best. GOP and Democratic leaders remain badly divided over the details and scope of a new round of relief, with Senate Republicans pushing a $500 billion proposal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for at least $2.2 trillion.
Introduced by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — led by New Jersey Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer and New York Republican Rep. Tom Reed — the plan is intended to serve as a short-term measure to shore up programs and provide new funding through the January presidential inauguration. And the group wants the plan to serve as an outline to push the leadership and the White House back to the negotiating table.
The measure calls for spending $1.523 trillion in new money, but the price tag could increase roughly $400 billion in February and March depending on how the country is doing in its fight against the pandemic. And if the US is seeing a decline in Covid-19 hospitalizations and making progress towards a vaccine, the price tag could drop roughly $200 billion.
The package would direct $100 billion to health care programs, including $25 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing. It would provide $500 billion for state and local governments — to help pay for lost revenue caused by the pandemic and costs associated with outbreak response. It would provide an additional $145 billion for schools and childcare, $15 billion for the US Postal Service, and $290 billion for small businesses, including another round for the popular Paycheck Protection Program. It would also include $400 million to help states bolster the November elections.
The measure also incorporates another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals under a certain income threshold, with an additional $500 per child, while extending the federal eviction moratorium and providing rental assistance up to $25 billion.
Under the plan, unemployed workers could be eligible for federal jobless benefits for eight weeks at $450 per week. The unemployment benefits would transition up to $600 per week, similar to the level that expired in July, but it would cap the amount to ensure people aren’t being paid more than their lost income.
While the plan has elements both parties could support, it is far more generous than what many Republicans want — particularly over state and local aid and for jobless benefits — and is short of what’s been demanded by Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who have sought $3.6 billion for election security measures, $430 billion for schools and a continuation of jobless benefits at $600 a week, among other matters.
Members of the bipartisan group said they have kept both the White House and Democratic leaders apprised of their efforts, and they say they have not been discouraged from putting together their proposal. The group has spoken by phone with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows amid the stalemate in the talks at the leadership level.
Still, for the bill to become law, it would need backing from top congressional leaders in both parties and President Donald Trump — something many believe remains highly doubtful given the rhetoric on both sides.
Last week, Senate GOP leaders brought forward a $500 billion stimulus bill, in a move to get their conference on the same page. Senate Democrats blocked the measure from being brought to the floor.
Democratic leaders continue to call for a larger bill in the $2 trillion range — a price tag many Republicans are unwilling to consider. Pelosi and Schumer defended their approach on a call with House Democrats after the Senate vote last Thursday. Pelosi made the case that Democrats sent a message to Republicans with the vote that they will “stick together,” which could force Republicans back to the negotiating table.
Pelosi also urged her caucus not to be a “cheap date,” according to a source on the call.
On Monday, the speaker said any stimulus deal has to include sufficient funds to “crush the virus.”
After negotiations broke down in August, Trump moved on several executive actions to attempt to alleviate the economic fallout of the pandemic. But administration officials maintain that more aid is needed from Congress.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC on Monday that Trump is “always considering” additional executive orders, “but there are limitations, and that’s why it’s very important that we have stimulus that helps areas of the economy that need support.”
“I think there is a compromise if the speaker is willing to move forward,” said Mnuchin, who has represented the President in talks for a stimulus agreement.
“I’ve told the speaker I’m available anytime to negotiate, no conditions,” he added. He said he looks forward to seeing the proposal from the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Members of the group say they hope their plan can spur action.
“This is analogous to a test balloon,” one of the lawmakers involved told CNN, adding they believe it will be received “warmly” by many House members.