The Trump administration is reportedly open to cutting a coronavirus stimulus deal with Democrats that leaves out Senate Republican legislation intended to protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits.
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Although the White House has maintained that liability protections for employers is a top priority in the next round of virus aid, officials have signaled a willingness to sign off on a deal that does not include those legal protections, according to The Washington Post, citing two people with knowledge of White House planning.
That puts the White House at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said repeatedly that no relief bill will be passed without it.
The liability shield would not just apply to private businesses, but to schools, hospitals and nonprofits. The protection would make it so that workers and consumers could only sue businesses for damages if they can prove they were "grossly negligent" in actions that led them to being infected by COVID-19.
"No bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not have liability protections," McConnell told reporters this week.
Democrats have opposed those measures. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued this week that a liability shield would fail to make businesses and employers responsible for the safety of their workplace while at the same time removing any fear of repercussions if a worker got sick.
"What they're saying to essential workers, 'You have to go to work because you're essential. We've placed no responsibility on your employer to make that workplace safe,'" Pelosi said during an interview on CBS News. "'And if you get sick, you have no recourse because we've given the employer protection.'"
President Trump on Wednesday panned the Senate Republicans' package, the HEALS Act, as "semi-irrelevant." He told reporters Wednesday the two parties are "so far apart" on what they think needs to be included in the next round of emergency aid. His priorities for those relief measures, he added, are an extension of the eviction moratorium and supplemental unemployment benefits, both of which expired.
“We want to work on the evictions so that people don’t get evicted. We’ll work on the payments for the people,” Trump said Wednesday. “And the rest of it, we’re so far apart, we don’t care. We really don’t care. We want to take care of the people.”
On Thursday, top White House negotiators pushed for a short-term proposal to replace lapsed unemployment benefits until Congress can strike a broader deal. But that effort was blocked by Democrats, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer deriding the move as a political stunt.
A White House spokesperson told the Post that the liability shield remains a top priority and declined to comment on the state of negotiations.
Negotiations over the next round of relief funding are at a standstill despite a sweeping agreement between Republicans and Democrats that additional aid is needed. One main point of contention between the two sides is whether to extend the extra jobless aid or not.
Republicans have proposed cutting the sweetened benefits to $200 per week until states can adopt a more complicated system that would cap the aid at 70 percent of a worker's former salary. Democrats maintain the $600 a week boost needs to be extended through the end of the year and have made it a key sticking point in negotiations.
The two sides have each endorsed their own bill: In May, House Democrats passed the $3.5 trillion HEROES Act, and on Monday, Senate Republicans unveiled the HEALS Act.
Further complicating matters is party infighting on the GOP side over support for the HEALS Act, which is estimated to cost $1 trillion; McConnell acknowledged there are likely 20 Republican senators who are against the bill and additional federal spending as the nation's deficit skyrockets.
"Half of the Republicans are going to vote no," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News over the weekend. "That's just a fact."
There are also tensions between the White House and congressional Republicans, who worry the administration is ceding too much leeway to Pelosi.