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Rollout Of Republican Coronavirus Aid Bill Pushed To Next Week

Sen. Lamar Alexander (left) speaks with Sen. Roy Blunt before the start of a Senate Rules Committee hearing Wednesday.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Sen. Lamar Alexander (left) speaks with Sen. Roy Blunt before the start of a Senate Rules Committee hearing Wednesday.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

Republican senators and the White House have reached an agreement on major elements of an upcoming coronavirus aid bill but have yet to settle on how to address unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of this month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced late Thursday afternoon that the administration is reviewing the "agreement in principle" and the legislation will be introduced next week.

The agreement on the GOP bill, which includes $105 billion for schools and $16 billion for testing, is meant to be a starting point for bipartisan talks on a final bill. The full package was expected Thursday morning, but haggling over unemployment provisions stalled the release. McConnell said key committee chairs would roll out details on Monday.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning for further talks, as GOP senators were still split on the size and components of the legislation.

Mnuchin said they are focused on a new federal unemployment benefit that would replace roughly 70% of the wages a person was previously earning.

"I think we are very clear on we're not going to pay people more to stay home than to work," Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. "So we're looking at something that looks like a 70% wage replacement, and we're working on the mechanics of that."

Those mechanics have been a major hurdle in the unemployment talks. Lawmakers settled on the $600 in weekly benefits that are currently available because they could not coordinate with state systems quickly enough. Democrats and Republicans said at the time that they would have liked to tailor unemployment benefits more closely to what people made when they were working.

McConnell said there would be some "temporary federal supplement" to unemployment aid, but he said the bill will also fix "the obvious craziness of paying people more to remain out of the workforce." He pledged more help would be in the bill for the 17 million unemployed, but said they wanted to "make sure it is suited to reopening."

Top congressional Democrats criticized the GOP for failing to support jobless Americans and dismissed the idea of working on some kind of temporary extension for unemployment aid while a broader bill was being negotiated.

"We cannot piecemeal this," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at her weekly press conference, adding, "I go to the table with a commitment for the $600."

The Senate GOP agreement does not include the payroll tax cut President Trump had been pushing.

Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee announced a separate portion of the agreement Wednesday night. The senators said the legislation meets their priorities of getting people "back to school, back to child care and back to working."

The school funding includes $30 billion for colleges and universities, $70 billion for K-12 education and $5 billion for governors to allocate as needed.

"There will be some money distributed to all districts," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "And other money that will be distributed to districts that get back to school in a more traditional sense."

Half of the money for K-12 schools would go to all schools on a per-capita basis; the other half would be distributed to schools that go back to a traditional school setting rather than using distance learning.

The senators also described funding for testing for nursing homes, child care facilities and schools.

McConnell indicated committees would introduce key provisions as standalone bills — a shift from previous relief measures that were unveiled as comprehensive packages. He also repeated his insistence that any new bill had to include liability protections for schools, businesses and health care workers so they are not "swamped by a tidal wave of malpractice suits."

The majority leader indicated that there would be another round of direct payments to Americans and that there would be a "sequel" to the popular Paycheck Protection Program, the small business loan program, making additional loans available to those who already received them to ensure they remained viable.

Democrats passed their version of the next round of coronavirus relief more than two months ago. But Republicans have struggled to unite over whether more aid was necessary as well as key benefits such as unemployment insurance, direct payments and the total cost.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.