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‘We’re getting farther apart’: Murray, Risch weigh in on COVID-19 relief negotiations as deadlines loom

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, right, elbow bumps James Richardson, director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, on June 18 in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.  (Caroline Brehman)

WASHINGTON – With key pieces of the federal government’s COVID-19 response set to expire at the end of July, time is running out for Congress to negotiate another round of pandemic relief spending, and lawmakers remain far apart on what a compromise bill should look like.

In interviews with The Spokesman-Review, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, illustrated the gulf between their parties on issues including unemployment insurance, liability protections and the bill’s price tag .

“We’re not getting closer together, we’re getting farther apart,” Risch said. “I will be very surprised if we get (an agreement) by the end of next week.”

Lawmakers face a series of unofficial deadlines to get a deal done. Friday will mark the end of the $600-a-week supplemental jobless benefits Congress enacted in its first wave of relief spending in March and of an eviction freeze to protect tenants who can’t pay rent.

Senators are set to leave the Capitol on Aug. 7 for their annual recess, effectively making that the deadline for negotiations. Democratic leaders have said House lawmakers, set to begin their own break July 31, may be called back to Washington to vote on a final bill.

House Democrats passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package in mid-May, but the GOP didn’t unveil its counteroffer until Monday, less eager to add to the nearly $3 trillion Congress has already spent on the pandemic and delayed by an internal rift over what the legislation should include.

“A bill could have gotten done by now if Republicans were actually interested in getting done what needs to be done for this country,” Murray said. “They have failed to come forward in any way, shape or form.”

The most obvious divide between the parties is over the total spending. The Republican proposal, dubbed the HEALS Act would cost about $1 trillion, far less than the Democrats’ $3 trillion HEROES Act.

A compromise bill would need to pass both the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump, a tough legislative needle to thread. To complicate matters, several Senate Republicans have voiced their opposition to any more spending, likely giving Democrats more leverage in negotiations.

“Half of the Republicans are going to vote no,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News over the weekend. “That’s just a fact.”

Risch said he wouldn’t draw a red line in terms of spending, but he pointed to billions in unspent money from Congress’s earlier relief bills and said the next package should be more targeted.

One prominent fight is over the additional unemployment benefits, which Democrats see as an essential tool amid sky-high jobless rates and want to extend into 2021. Republicans say the extra $600 a week means many workers are paid more to stay home than they would be to return to work, making it hard for employers to reopen businesses.

“When we passed the first bill, before it was even voted on, people realized that $600 thing was a mistake,” Risch said.

The Idaho senator said that while the flat weekly rate may have made sense in some big cities, the one-size-fits-all approach didn’t work for his state, which ranks in the bottom fifth of states in median income, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Ryan Herzog, a professor of economics at Gonzaga University, said the flat-rate jobless benefits have been an important stop-gap measure, but ideally unemployment insurance would be calculated to replace 100% of a worker’s wages, removing the incentive to stay home while not forcing vulnerable workers to expose themselves to the virus.

The Republican proposal would lower weekly supplemental payments to $200 until October, by which point states would be expected to calculate unemployment payments based on each worker’s past wages.

But many state unemployment agencies use antiquated computer systems that can’t easily be reprogrammed to calculate individualized benefits.

“Depending on the guidance received from (the U.S. Department of Labor), it could take 12 weeks to implement such a program,” an Idaho Department of Labor spokesperson wrote in an email.

A spokesperson for Washington’s Employment Security Department referred to a July 23 letter to Congress from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, which said it would take eight to 20 weeks for most states to adopt such a system, perhaps months after the fixed payments run out.

“What this highlights is the lack of technology we have in our system,” Herzog said. “Do 100% wage replacement and make it a function of unemployment, but that $600 a week is maybe not providing the right incentive.”

Another contentious provision in the GOP proposal would shield companies and universities from COVID-related lawsuits, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called non-negotiable. But Murray, like other Democrats, rejected that idea as a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for businesses.

“What every business and every person is really asking is ‘What are the standards that are going to be in my workplace so I know I’m protected?’” Murray said. “If we put in this huge, blanket immunity, all it does is tell businesses, ‘You don’t have to protect your workers at all.’”

Both parties are open to another round of the $1,200 stimulus payments Congress previously approved in March, but Risch said he favors making the payments more targeted to those who most need them, including lower-income people and parents.

Murray didn’t rule out supporting the payments, but questioned their purpose. The first round of checks bore Trump’s name – despite Congress having the authority to direct federal spending – a move some Democrats saw as politically motivated.

“Is that just to make sure people are OK for a few more weeks?” Murray said of the stimulus payments. “Or is that just some kind of ploy to make people think they’re getting something and move on? Sure, we’d all like a gift, but what people really want to know is, can they get care if they get coronavirus? What’s happening in our schools? How are we protecting people?”

With the deadlines looming and both parties still far apart, there is growing talk of Congress voting on separate pieces of legislation, something Democrats have so far rejected.

“What I fear is Mitch McConnell has made it clear that this is his last COVID package,” Murray said, “and I believe him, because he’s having trouble getting Republicans right now to step up to the plate on this. But I also think there are serious, urgent needs right now.”

“Whether I’m a health care worker or a bus driver or somebody who works in a restaurant,” she said, “you want some certainty. A piecemeal approach and a one-time check doesn’t give you that certainty.”

Negotiations continued Wednesday with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at the Capitol to represent Trump. But with time running out, Risch said a piecemeal approach may be the best Congress can do.

“There’s much, much more talk about having votes on some individual pieces,” he said. “I am not optimistic we’re going to get to a solution to this by the end of next week.”