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Senate comes back into session with sharp partisan divide over next coronavirus bill

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called for suspension of any business not related to virus

Griffin Connolly
Monday 04 May 2020 21:05 BST
Mitch McConnell was wrong to suggest states being hit badly by the coronavirus pandemic should or could declare bankruptcy

The Senate has kicked off its first full work week in more than a month with a canyon separating the leaders of both parties on how to approach the next piece of legislation responding to the coronavirus pandemic, judicial nominations, and other pieces of business that have lain dormant since March.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has drawn a “red line” for negotiations on the next coronavirus package, saying it must include “litigation protection” for hospitals and businesses as many states prepare to re-open their economies even as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to mount.

Democrats, meanwhile, are demanding that the federal government send billions of more dollars to states and local governments, which Mr McConnell and, at times, Donald Trump, have scorned.

Other outstanding issues on the negotiating table for the next coronavirus package include another round of direct cash payments to Americans; more money for overstretched hospitals and nursing homes; more funding for popular small business relief programmes; more money for states to secure their elections; infrastructure investments and broadband internet expansion; and a loosening of the criminal justice system to allow some non-violent inmates out of prisons with a high potential for being compromised by Covid-19.

In the background of the fight over the next coronavirus package, Senate committees will finally have the chance to address a backlog of business that has been neglected over the last five weeks.

Republican gavel-holders have already teed up a slate of 10 hearings for this, including a high-stakes public hearing on Tuesday for Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence, Texas congressman John Ratcliffe.

Mr Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration for the same post last August after several senators openly questioned whether the notoriously conservative congressman could serve in the post in a non-partisan manner and after many in the GOP ranks internally grumbled about Mr Trump’s choice of him.

True to form, the Senate Judiciary Committee is ploughing ahead with a hearing on Wednesday to examine some of Mr Trump’s court nominees. Mr McConnell has prioritised remaking the federal judiciary in his conservative image during Mr Trump’s first term.

While Senate judiciary committee chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has not disclosed which nominees the panel will consider on Wednesday, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer on Monday panned the committee for holding a hearing for “a manifestly unqualified, totally divisive right wing judicial nominee.” That nominee is believed to be federal district judge Justin Walker, a McConnell family friend who was nominated recently for the powerful DC Circuit Court.

Obstacles for coronavirus bill

Foremost on everyone’s minds is the next coronavirus relief package.

The federal government has already passed four bills to the tune of more than $2.7trn, nearly 13 per cent of US GDP in 2019.

Mr McConnell has insisted since last Monday that if Democrats want to secure Republicans’ support for more money for states and local governments, they’ll have to agree to some revisions of tort law to protect business owners from liability lawsuits related to Covid-19.

“Imagine you are a businessman thinking about reopening, and you’ve heard that the trial lawyers all over the country are sharpening their pencils getting ready to sue you, claiming that you didn’t engage in proper distancing or other issues related to health and safety,” Mr McConnell said in a Fox News interview last week.

“We can’t pass another bill unless we have liability protections. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to get past this and that is to begin to open up the economy again.”

Mr Schumer has taken a firm stance against Mr McConnell, saying his proposal doesn’t make sense.

“Instead of making sure businesses have [personal protective equipment] for their employees, McConnell wants to make it harder for workers to show up at their jobs and to hold their employers accountable for providing safe working conditions,” Mr Schumer told reporters last week. “Instead of fighting for more testing to help everyone working on the front lines, Sen. McConnell is fighting to protect corporate executives.”

House Democrats, who have delayed the people’s chamber’s previously scheduled return to the Capitol on Monday by another week, also have a host of issues they want to address in the next package.

Last Thursday they unveiled an $80bn plan to provide universal broadband internet access, part of their larger overall ambition for a sweeping new infrastructure deal, an elusive item that they’ve flirted about with the Trump administration for years.

Mr Trump’s closest advisers who have led negotiations on previous coronavirus packages — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, and others — projected a narrower vision for any follow-up legislation in recent days.

“There may well be additional legislation. There’s kind of a pause period right now,” director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, adding that negotiators should revisit the topic in “a couple of weeks.”

Mr Kudlow and Mr Mnuchin have been laser-focused on keeping funding coming for programmes aimed at shielding small businesses from the coronavirus’ economic fallout, such as the Treasury Department’s so-called Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP).

More funding for PPP and other small business relief programmes is something both parties agree needs to remain a top priority, though there remain ongoing talks about certain guardrails for how to distribute that funding.

‘Strange’ times at the Capitol

While the Senate is in session this week, it’s not business as usual.

“This will be one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history,” Mr Schumer said, noting that senators’ offices would be mostly empty with their staffs working from home.

Democrats do not plan to hold in-person caucus meetings.

Anyone who approaches the Senate well for a speech will wipe down the microphone and podium with disinfectant and hold onto their speeches instead of handing them over, as is customary, to the Senate recorders.

Senators will be wearing masks, as Mr McConnell did on the way from his office in the Capitol to the Senate cloakroom.

But, the majority leader insisted on Monday, “if it is essential that brave healthcare workers, grocery-store workers, truck drivers, and many other Americans continue to carefully show up for work, then it is essential that their US senators carefully show up ourselves and support them”.

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