WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders met on Monday to plot their priorities for another round of federal coronavirus aid, which will decide the future of boosted unemployment payments and assistance to schools reopening in the fall.
The spread of coronavirus continues to worsen across the country as Congress returns to work in Washington this week to begin negotiations on another round of aid, which is expected to top $1 trillion.
Congress faces a rapidly approaching deadline at the end of the week when boosted unemployment payments are set to expire. Negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House hit snags over the weekend and talks between the GOP and Democrats have been nearly non-existent.
The focus of the legislation should be on "kids and jobs and vaccines," Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters in the Oval Office where the meeting occurred.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who attended the meeting along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is expected to unveil a proposal later this week and has left open the possibility of continuing boosted unemployment payments, which are set to expire at the end of the month.
Republicans, Mnuchin said, are committed to passing legislation by the end of the month to protect unemployed Americans who have been receiving enhanced benefits, though he suggested it won't be as much as the current level of $600 extra in unemployment insurance per week.
"We're going to make sure that we don't pay people more money to stay home than go to work. We want to make sure that people who can go to work safely can do," he said. "We'll have tax credits that incentivize businesses to bring people back to work. We'll have tax credits for PPE for safe work environments, and we're gonna have big incentives, money to the states for education for schools that can open safely and and do education."
Mnuchin said that he and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows will meet with Senate Republicans on Tuesday to provide a full briefing on negotiations. The pair are also scheduled to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in Pelosi's office on Tuesday afternoon, two sources familiar with the meeting told NBC News.
McConnell said that the theme of the GOP proposal will be "schools, jobs and health care." According to a draft summary of the plan obtained by NBC News, Republicans also want to offer liability protections for schools, colleges, charities, businesses and frontline health care workers and employers who follow public health guidelines.
"We don’t need an epidemic of lawsuits on the heels of a pandemic," said McConnell, who made clear that Republicans will have to get support from Democrats in order to pass the legislation in the Senate.
Speaking on the Senate floor later in the day, McConnell said the new legislation "lies somewhere in between" a "loan to make up for a totally shut down economy" and "an ordinary stimulus for a nation ready to get back to normal."
"We need to continue supporting our health care system and harbor no delusion that this virus is behind us because it isn't, while also taking strategic steps to help laid off American workers get rehired and American families get their kids back in school this fall," McConnell said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have opposed the liability protection idea and are calling instead for funding to state and local governments, funding for schools, an extension of the $600 unemployment insurance benefit and another round of direct payments to Americans, among other things.
Trump said he plans to discuss adding a payroll tax holiday. Senate Republicans have repeatedly rejected that proposal as too expensive and not helpful to the people who need it, a position sources said recently has not changed.
Negotiations over another comprehensive aid package have been stalled on Capitol Hill for months. House Democrats passed their own $3 trillion proposal in May, but Senate Republicans have not taken up the legislation and they have not yet rolled out their own plan.
The White House is focused on expediting vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus, keeping people employed and bringing back manufacturing from overseas, Meadows said in an interview on Fox News on Sunday. The Trump administration has been coordinating with McConnell and other Republicans on the new aid measure, but those talks hit a snag over the weekend over funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as testing and tracing.
Senate Republicans are pushing back against a White House attempt to block billions of dollars for coronavirus testing and tracing contacts of individuals infected with the coronavirus, two Republican sources told NBC News on Sunday.
News of the White House push to block the funding was first reported by The Washington Post.
Reacting to the reports, Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday, "What we heard over the weekend that the White House was thinking about no more testing. That defied ... that goes beyond ignorance. It's just beyond the pale."
Mnuchin earlier this month said that the Trump administration backed another round of direct stimulus payments in the next aid package and said that Congress must pass it by the end of the month. Any Republican-led proposal would then have to be negotiated with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to become law.
Congress doesn’t have much time to negotiate and pass the legislation — lawmakers have only a few weeks left in Washington before their annual summer recess in August which will be focused on campaigning and the two parties’ conventions.