Even surge in cases fails to break impasse on aid for those hurt most in pandemic
The US Congress is past the point at which it can deliver more coronavirus relief before the election, with differences between House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her Senate Republican rivals and US President Donald Trump proving insurmountable despite the glaring needs of the country.
Trump's GOP allies are reconvening the Senate this week to vote on a virus proposal, but it's a bill that failed once before, and that Trump himself now derides as too puny. The debate promises to bring a hefty dose of posturing and political gamesmanship, but little more.
Even the architect of the Senate measure, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, isn't claiming the vote will advance the ball. Once the measure fails, he plans to turn the chamber's full attention to cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court by confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett. It is likely to be the Senate's final act before the Nov 3 election.
The US had reported more than 8.2 million cases and 220,000 deaths by Wednesday morning, both counts the highest in the world. New virus cases in the US have surged in recent weeks from a daily average of about 42,000 in early October to about 58,000－the highest level since late July, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In that context, this week's vote has the chief benefit of giving Republicans in tough reelection races one last opportunity to try to show voters they are prioritizing COVID-19 relief－and to make the case to voters that Democrats are the ones standing in the way.
"It was important to indicate to the American people before the election－not after－that we were not in favor of a stalemate, that we were not in favor of doing nothing," McConnell said last week.
McConnell is resurrecting a measure in the $650 billion range that would repurpose $138 billion in small business subsidies to provide a second round of paycheck relief, add $300 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits, and help schools and universities reopen. The last version of the bill left out help for states and local governments sought by Democrats and another round of $1,200 direct payments demanded by Trump.
The last relief package, the $1.8 trillion bipartisan CARES Act, passed in March by an overwhelming margin as the economy went into lockdown amid fear and uncertainty about the virus. Since then, Trump and many of his GOP allies have focused on loosening social and economic restrictions as the key to recovery instead of more taxpayer-funded help.
Trump now insists that lawmakers should "go big" with a bill of up to perhaps $2 trillion, a total reversal after abandoning the talks earlier this month. But his political problems aren't swaying Senate Republicans.
"He's talking about a much larger amount than I can sell to my members," McConnell said.
The most recent bill from House Democrats weighs in at $2.4 trillion－or more than $2.6 trillion when including a $246 billion tax increase on businesses that's unlikely to gain GOP acceptance. The package is a nonstarter with Senate Republicans and McConnell, who is making the case for a more targeted approach that's well south of $1 trillion.
The moment is challenging for Pelosi as well. For months she has been promising a COVID relief package of more than $2 trillion stuffed with Obama-era stimulus ideas. Even though the Senate and White House are both in GOP hands－and will be at least into January－she has sharply rebuffed anyone who suggests that Democrats should take a smaller deal now rather than risk going home empty-handed until next year.
She said on Sunday that she remains optimistic of reaching an agreement with the administration but that a deal would have to come within 48 hours－or Tuesday－for it to be enacted by election day.
Agencies, Xinhua and Ai Heping in New York contributed to this story.