Back from recess, Senate aims to vote on relief bill this week

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the Senate returned from the August recess Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers will forge ahead on negotiations over another coronavirus relief bill and could vote on the next package as soon as this week.

Democrats and Republicans remain at an impasse after the House passed the Heroes Act in May. The more than $3 trillion relief bill would send $500 billion to states and $375 billion for local governments. It would also extend a weekly $600 unemployment benefit, send most Americans another $1,200 stimulus check and beef up food stamp and small business grant programs with an additional $10 billion each.

The $600 weekly unemployment benefit and the amount of money to send states and cities have been sticking points in the negotiations. Republicans introduced a limited $1 trillion bill in July, which only would have provided an extra $300 per week for jobless Americans. McConnell said at the time that the push for an additional $300 was “another absurd demand” from Democrats. The Senate recessed in August without extending those benefits.

On Tuesday, McConnell suggested Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are blocking further relief only for the purpose of damaging President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection chances.

“They have taken Americans’ health, jobs, and schools hostage for perceived partisan gain,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.

The latest Republican bill to be unveiled this week will be a “targeted proposal,” McConnell said, focused on “urgent health care, education and economic issues.” He said it would not be a “piecemeal” solution, referring to a comment Pelosi made in July about the GOP’s previous plan.

“It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation,” McConnell said, adding that he will move to set up a floor vote as soon as this week.

Providing $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service as requested by the agency’s board of governors is also an issue dividing Republicans and Democrats. McConnell said Tuesday the House’s passage of those funds in mid-August was “the most piecemeal bill imaginable” because it not address the nation’s health, economic and education crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Democrats have pushed back on claims from Republicans, including Trump, that Postal Service funding is delaying negotiations on a broader relief package.

In a joint statement Tuesday, Pelosi and Schumer said Senate Republicans “appear dead-set on another bill which doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere.”

The Democratic leaders say the new GOP bill – the specifics of which were not released by McConnell by press time – only gives vulnerable Republicans a “check the box” vote to maintain the appearance that they are trying to help struggling American families.

“If anyone doubts McConnell’s true intent is anything but political, just look at the bill,” Pelosi and Schumer said. “This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support.”

They added, “Even Leader McConnell has repeatedly stressed that 20 Republican Senators intend to do nothing in the face of this historic crisis.  Democrats want to work on bipartisan legislation that will meet the urgent needs of the American people but Republicans continue to move in the wrong direction.”