Sticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday

Senate negotiators will return to work on Sunday after failing to reach a bipartisan agreement “in principle” Saturday evening on a massive stimulus package, despite reporting significant areas of consensus.

Lawmakers had hoped to finalize a deal on Saturday evening after missing a deadline Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had set for the end of the day Friday.

Instead, negotiators will work to resolve disagreements in several areas ahead of a key procedural vote scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday.

“You’re not going to have a product that’s signed off by everybody tonight because there’s still a couple of outstanding issues, but it will include a lot of Democratic ideas. So, in that sense it will reflect a Democrat and Republican approach,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added that he was “optimistic” there would be a deal but added “we’re going to continue working through the night.”

Senators and the White House appear to have reached tentative agreements on key points such as a plan to distribute $1,000 in direct tax rebates, a $250 billion expansion of unemployment insurance, a payroll tax holiday for small businesses, and the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) request for $46 billion in emergency funding for coronavirus response and preparedness.

They have also reached a deal on a $350 billion rescue package for small business that will feature federally guaranteed loans that will be fully refundable for employers who keep workers on payroll through the health crisis.

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters the cost of the package could climb even higher as he and colleagues wait on a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

“We’re now down to, ‘How long will the money that’s being appropriated last?’ We want it to be long enough to get us through this period,” he said.

The interlocking nature of the negotiations means that no part of the sprawling bill is finalized until administration officials and senators agree to all of its parts.

While negotiators resolved some of their early disagreements, new problems popped up throughout the talks on Saturday as both sides upped their demands.

“The only thing is, when you keep adding at the last – within the last hour, or a couple things, as an example – then you have to go back and check on it. … We’ve got a deadline,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), describing the rolling nature of the negotiations.

Schumer and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Saturday made a pitch to increase Social Security benefits, veterans assistance and Supplemental Security Income benefits by $200 a month.

A senior Senate GOP aide pointed to a Democratic demand to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a state stabilization fund as a remaining sticking point. Democrats initially asked for $750 billion to help states, which Republicans refused, according to a person familiar with the talks.

Despite GOP hostility to an economic rescue of state governments, Republicans on Saturday acknowledged the final deal will include a “big number” to shore up state budgets.

Republicans meanwhile are seeking to dramatically increase funding to provide loans to distressed industries such as U.S. passenger airlines, air cargo carriers, hotel chains and energy companies.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said the $208 billion proposed in the original GOP plan to ensure distressed industries have access to capital should be increased to $300 billion, $400 billion or $500 billion.

He said augmenting Treasury Department funds to maximize the loan potential of the Fed would “inject much more capital” into the economy.

Other items that remain unresolved are relief for student loans, where Democrats have proposed having the Department of Education make the payments on federal student loans for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Republicans, in their initial plan, instead proposed deferring the payments.

White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would unveil “additional proposals” on student loans Sunday that have the president’s support.

Alexander, who is also in charge of the healthcare talks, declined to say if or how Republicans would address expanding paid sick leave – a priority for Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The Senate GOP plan introduced Thursday would give the secretary of Labor expanded authority to exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees from paid sick leave benefits and creates caps for how much employers would pay under the sick leave proposal, a measure that was met with Democratic objection.

And in a curveball, Grassley tweeted on Saturday night that he “heard rumors” that the White House is trying to get legislation regarding surprise medical bills and healthcare tax extenders into the stimulus package.

Despite the litany of unresolved items, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared bullish as he spoke to reporters about the chances of getting a bipartisan deal.

“We’re going to be able to produce a bipartisan agreement,” he said, predicting that it will pass the Senate on Monday.

He added in a subsequent statement that talks were ongoing but “very close to a resolution.”

“I believe we are poised to deliver the significant relief that Americans need with the speed that this crisis demands,” he said.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said “there’s a lot of common ground” and “on the main points everybody is kind of in the same place.” A GOP leadership aide predicted that there would not be “major setbacks” as negotiators work to bring the bill to a close.

Congress is under significant pressure to quickly pass the stimulus package to reassure the financial markets and the American public.

The U.S. has 25,493 confirmed cases of the virus as of Saturday evening, according to data from John Hopkins University, including 307 deaths.

Faced with an extreme time crunch, negotiators have resolved disagreements that might otherwise take weeks to iron out by simply agreeing to include both sides’ priorities – such as rebate checks and expanded unemployment insurance.

The total cost of the package has ballooned to between $1.5 and $2 trillion as both sides rush to cram their priorities into the package. The White House initially pitched a $1 trillion price tag, while Schumer called for at least $750 billion.

Republicans are moving forward with drafting the bill even though they have not locked down an overall agreement. The text, according to senators and White House aides, will reflect bipartisan deals where they exist and ideas that Republicans believe could win over Democratic support for areas where they have not reached an agreement.

Talks over the unresolved areas are expected to continue ahead of Sunday’s procedural vote, where McConnell will need at least seven Democrats to vote to move forward even if they have not reached a deal.

“What the leader has instructed his committees to, with our support, is to finish drafting legislation that reflects agreements reached so far and that the chairman and the majority believe Democrats could be in a position to support by the time we vote,” said Ueland.

McConnell added that he has asked committee chairmen to turn over legislative text on Saturday evening “that reflects their compromise products.”

“This would allow all Senators to review the complete bipartisan text in advance of our first procedural vote at 3:00pm tomorrow,” he added.

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