Congress sprints toward passing coronavirus stimulus plan

Democrats will find pieces of the GOP proposal objectionable, but CNN is hearing things may not be as far apart overall as one would initially think.

That doesn’t mean things will be reconciled in a bipartisan manner immediately, but there’s some overlap between the two sides in what’s coming. The key will be hammering out the rest.

Pieces of the Senate GOP package were still being drafted Wednesday night, but consider Thursday the starting gun of what lawmakers on both sides hope is an absolute sprint. All of the incentives — economic urgency, desire to leave Washington for safety reasons — are lining up for a quick resolution.

But this is an immense — and extremely important — piece of legislation. Folks aren’t just going to shake hands and agree out of the gate.

Here’s your big picture siren

Two House lawmakers have tested positive for Covid-19. That has led to more House lawmakers self-quarantining, including the second-ranked House Republican, GOP Whip Steve Scalise. In texting back and forth with House lawmakers, who are home in their districts this week, here’s a few reactions:

House Democrat: “It was only a matter of time, and we’re just lucky we aren’t in session this week.”

House Republican: “I think we all assumed this was coming, but it’s still jarring. If I’m a senator, I want no part of being in the Capitol right now.”

House Democrat: “You’re kidding yourself if you think (the House) is reconvening with members anytime soon.”

That last point raises a serious question: How on Earth does the House consider — and pass — whatever final product the Senate is able to muster the votes for and send across the Capitol? Is the idea that the House is supposed to pass a $1 trillion-plus package by unanimous consent? Leadership is going to have to address this very soon.

What to watch

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, when and if he comes to the floor to announce next steps.
  • How Democrats react will tell the tale of what the days ahead will bring.

What to read

Read this great piece by CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Vivian Salama on what will once again soon become one of the most important relationships in the country — and perhaps the world: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Paul LeBlanc on the first two members of Congress to test positive for coronavirus.

Laying the groundwork

Mnuchin and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer spoke twice by phone on Tuesday. Mnuchin and Pelosi spoke by phone on Tuesday as well.

What House Democrats are doing

House Democrats, at the direction of Pelosi, are drafting their own stimulus package. This is strategic — with Senate Republicans moving on their own version, the House majority needs to lay down its own marker.

On a conference call Wednesday, House Democratic leadership was briefed by the committee chairs of jurisdiction on the proposals they envision for the third response package and additional recovery efforts down the road, according to an aide on the call.

Schumer’s position

The Democratic position, outlined in a 15-page PowerPoint circulated by Schumer on Tuesday, has served as the baseline for where things stand up to this point.

Schumer, speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday night, said this: “We can come to a bipartisan agreement. I spoke to Secretary Mnuchin tonight. I know some of the things they’re interested in. Some of the things we’re interested in. A lot of them overlap, and there are some things that we’re gonna want.”

Key issues from the Democratic side that will almost certainly have to addressed

  • Strict restrictions on corporate governance for any industries that are able to tap loans or lending facilities on order to stay afloat.
  • Significant expansion and enhancement of unemployment insurance.

Here’s a secret

Despite McConnell’s insistence that the initial product will be purely the result of negotiations between Senate Republicans and the Trump administration, Democrats on the committee level have been looped in to several of the key pieces of the plan. They haven’t signed off on anything or revised any language, but CNN has been told things have been bounced off the minority staff in some cases in order to try and create space for a quicker agreement.

Mnuchin has been looping in Pelosi and Schumer, as noted above. Nobody is blind as to where things are headed right now. To be clear, this isn’t an across the board occurrence. There will still be a lot of work — and disagreement — to come. But people aren’t operating blind right now.

Along those lines

What McConnell has done is task his key committee chairs, and their top staff, with drafting each component of the package. Once the proposal is released, expect the Democratic counterparts to fully engage on each piece, as leaders meet on the top-line to attempt to reconcile the biggest issues. Treasury has, and will continue, to provide the bulk of the administration’s work on these talks.

McConnell has rejected the request of Pelosi and Schumer to turn these talks into a four-corners (the top two leaders in each chamber) negotiation from the start. Don’t read too much into that. Once the Senate GOP proposal is out, four corners is exactly where this is headed.

This may be the most important piece to watch

There’s a ton of talk about direct cash payments to Americans (Treasury envisions $500 billion, split over two rounds of payments, tiered based on income level and family size). There’s a ton of talk about stabilization funds to airlines and other distressed industries (Treasury envisions secured lending facilities and loan guarantees to address this).

There’s less talk about what is possibly the most important part of this whole package given the current state of the economy: the small business piece.

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, both Republicans, laid out the toplines for this piece in a press conference Wednesday, and CNN’s understanding is it’s the most bipartisan element of what’s coming. It also goes to the heart of what lawmakers have heard, on repeat, is the biggest problem facing the economy right now: businesses can’t make payroll and many are about to fall off a cliff as soon as the next pay period.

Nancy Pelosi-Steve Mnuchin relationship key to federal government's coronavirus response

What the proposal would do is infuse a significant amount of capital (north of $300 billion) into a Small Business Administration loan guarantee program, which would essentially allow companies to maintain payroll and expenses for an extended period of time. Banks and lenders, not the SBA, would provide the loans themselves, allowing the money to go out the door as soon as next week if the proposal is enacted soon. Those loans would then be forgiven when the crisis passes.

“We want to make sure is that businesses that would otherwise be thriving and doing well make it through this pandemic that we’re enduring,” Collins told reporters Wednesday. “We want to make sure that their employees make it through this pandemic, and when this crisis is over, we want these employees to be able to come back to work at those small businesses.”

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