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Leading Democrats back compromise plan to relaunch stimulus talks

WASHINGTON – Leading Democrats in Congress on Wednesday approved a bipartisan $ 908 billion stimulus compromise as a baseline for the talks, offering a major concession in an attempt to pressure Republicans to restart stalled talks on providing additional relief before the end of the year.

After months of publicly insisting that another stimulus package must provide at least $ 2 trillion, President Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called out Senator Mitch McConnell , Kentucky Republican and Majority Leader, to return to the negotiating table with a bill less than half that size as a starting point.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose advisers had been pushing privately in recent weeks for lawmakers to compromise to pass an economic aid deal as quickly as possible, also offered some sort of blessing for this effort. At a virtual event with laid-off workers and a small business owner struggling with the pandemic, Mr Biden said the bipartisan package “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be an immediate help for a lot of things, fast. .

The measure, led by West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III and Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, would restore stale federal jobless benefits, providing $ 300 per week for 18 weeks; would include $ 288 billion for struggling small businesses, restaurants and theaters and $ 160 billion for financially strapped cities and states; and create a temporary liability shield for companies operating in the midst of the pandemic.

The Democratic decision to pass it publicly offered no guarantee of a swift deal with Mr McConnell, who on Tuesday began circulating a significantly smaller cadre with the promise of a presidential signature. If negotiations resume, it’s also unclear how far Democrats would push to increase the size of the package.

The two sides are expected to overcome big differences on the details, including two particularly thorny issues: sending federal money to state and local governments to help fill the budget holes opened up by the recession, which many Republicans are facing. oppose regardless of the dollar amount, and how to limit the legal liability of open companies during the pandemic, an effort many Democrats have criticized.

“Of course we and others will suggest improvements, but the need for action is immediate, and we believe that with good faith negotiations we could reach an agreement,” said Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer. in their statement. The couple had sent a new offer on their own on Monday night to Mr McConnell and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, but after a group of moderate senators from both parties presented a plan on Tuesday, Ms Pelosi and Mr. Schumer threw his weight behind the frame “in a spirit of compromise”.

It amounted to a remarkable admission by Democrats that they could no longer hold out for the $ 2.4 trillion package they had demanded, especially as coronavirus cases rise across the country and may the appeals for relief continue to mount. For months, Republicans criticized Democratic leaders for pushing the expansion plan and preventing small aid – like new small business loans – from progressing.

Democrats accused Mr McConnell of blocking a deal and failing to compromise. Their decision on Wednesday was in part an effort to challenge him to start compromise talks, and Democrats could use stalled negotiations as a rallying cry in two second-round elections in Georgia next month that will determine the Senate control in 2021.

But it was also an attempt to find some sort of deal to bolster the economy that could be enacted before Mr Biden took office.

The change in demands came after Mr Biden said on Tuesday that any stimulus legislation passed during the lame session “is lucky to be, at best, just a start” and that Congress should act in the next few months. days. Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer, in their statement, also highlighted the imminent distribution of a vaccine and the federal funds that will be needed to safely disperse the first rounds across the country.

The Compromise Plan, drafted by a bipartisan group that included Senators Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia; Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah; and Angus King, independent from Maine, is supposed to serve as an interim measure until March. It was endorsed by the bipartisan House problem-solvers caucus, whose members and staff consulted with some senators after unveiling a similar bipartisan proposal.

Manchin said the group hoped to have the text ready by Monday.

“Over the past 24 hours, there has been a lot of socialization of ideas,” said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, adding that she and other senators involved in the framework had split into groups. to resolve individual problems. “We’ve all worked with colleagues in the field saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. Is this something you can support?

Mr McConnell appeared to panic the bipartisan cadre on Tuesday, repeatedly saying that President Trump’s support would be needed for any coronavirus deal. And speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declined to weigh in on the bipartisan measure or the offer made by Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer, reiterating instead that Mr Trump would sign the plan. by Mr. McConnell.

But some lawmakers have indicated they would be willing to support the bipartisan framework, even if it comes close to the $ 1 trillion that some of their colleagues would have liked. The effort received additional support Wednesday from the American Chamber of Commerce, the influential business lobbying group in Washington, which said in a statement that it “strongly supported the bipartisan group of lawmakers who proposed a new plan to pandemic relief ”for the lame. – duck session.

“There are message bills, and there are bills that can pass,” Romney said Wednesday before Democrats announced their support for the plan. “Our bill that we are working on is one that has enough support on both sides of the aisle, I believe, to eventually pass.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Republican No. 2 in the Senate, suggested to reporters that “maybe we can merge” the bipartisan framework with Mr. McConnell’s outline and that the group of senators “has had great success winning the list of problems. “

Mr Biden said on Wednesday he had “urged our Congressional Republicans to work on a bipartisan emergency plan now,” while stressing that such a package, “at best, will be just a down payment.

He also said his transition team was already drafting legislation to help support the economy, which he would push Congress to approve when he takes office.

“To say the obvious,” Biden told a woman who lost her job in the pandemic, “my ability to get you help immediately does not exist.”

“We’re going to get through this. You are going to get by, ”he added. “It will be hard as hell for the next 50 to 70 days, unless the House somehow acts, the Senate acts and passes some kind of document.

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