US virus talks drag on liability as Congress prepares stopgap aid

USA & World

US virus talks drag on liability as Congress prepares stopgap aid

United States politicians are giving themselves more time to sort through their end-of-session business on government spending and COVID-19 relief, preparing a one-week stopgap spending bill that would prevent a shutdown this weekend.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Number 2 Democrat in the US House of Representatives, said on Twitter that the temporary government funding bill is slated for a vote on December 9, when it is sure to easily pass.

The development comes as Congress is struggling to figure out how to deliver long-delayed pandemic relief, including additional help for businesses hard hit by the pandemic, further unemployment benefits, funding to distribute COVID-19 vaccines and funding demanded by Democrats for state and local governments.

Disagreements flared over one key provision — a proposed liability shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and organisations that reopen.

Hoyer had previously told legislators that this week would probably be the last of the session, but talks are going more slowly than hoped on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill under assembly by senior members of the powerful Appropriations committees.

The stopgap measure would prevent a government shutdown through December 18.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet reached agreement on government funding,” Hoyer said.

Three main items of legislation are at issue in the end-of-session agenda: a defence policy bill that President Donald Trump is threatening to veto; the $1.4 trillion government-wide spending bill; and perhaps $900bn in long-sought COVID-19 relief.

There are two sets of talks on COVID-19 relief — on the leadership level and among a group of Senate moderates — occurring at the same time and it is unclear how the negotiators might sort themselves out, lending an air of confusion to the process.

The bipartisan Senate group was set to meet again later on Monday. But a long weekend of talks pushed senators apart on one difficult issue, the proposed liability protection that has been a priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“We have seen some hopeful signs of engagement from our Democratic colleagues, but we have no reason to think the underlying disagreements about policy are going to evaporate overnight,” McConnell said.

Republicans initially proposed a sweeping five-year liability shield, retroactive to December 2019, to protect companies and organisations from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democrats, along with their allies in labour and civil rights groups, roundly dismissed that approach as a danger to workers.

“Granting immunity would make the country less safe at the exact moment when the COVID-19 pandemic is entering a new, dangerous phase,” wrote a coalition of 142 labour and civil rights groups to Congress.

They said, “any type of immunity would directly harm Black, Latino, and other workers of colour who are over-represented in ‘essential’ and in-person, reopened jobs.”

Negotiators suggested a scaled back liability shield but a six-month proposal was panned and there is no agreement yet. The powerful AFL-CIO federation of labour unions opposes even a short-term liability provision.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s Republican majority is demanding the liability protection in exchange for the Democrats’ push for additional money for states and cities battling the COVID-19 crisis.

“The leader had made clear that state and local money is tied to liability protection, so there’s either going to be none for both of those or both of those are going to be provided for,” Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, told reporters.

“My hope is we’ll do both,” Cornyn said.

If an agreement is not possible on the omnibus bill, legislators might have no option but to pass another continuing resolution that would keep the government running on autopilot and permit them to punt the unfinished spending bills into next year.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump is comfortable with a deal along the lines of one being put together by a group of Senate moderates and pragmatists. That $900bn plan does not include direct payments sought by Trump before the election.