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Capitol Hill Lawmakers Appear Far Apart On A New COVID-19 Relief Bill


Congress is back from summer recess today, and there's one item at the top of their to-do list - another coronavirus relief package. And let's bring in NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So in terms of negotiating another bill here to help people through this pandemic, where do things stand on the Hill?

DAVIS: Well, their negotiations will really start in earnest this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he would like a bill done and sent to the president before Congress takes its next break on August 10 for the rest of the summer. And he'd like to keep it around the cost of about a trillion dollars. Congress has already approved about $3 trillion in relief measures so far. You know, Democrats want to go bigger and bolder on this issue. House Democrats have already passed two months ago a $3 trillion package that included a trillion dollars alone just in aid to states and local governments. The question we're looking for now, is what exactly are Republicans in the Senate going to put forward? McConnell says he's going to unveil that proposal this week. It's expected on Tuesday. And he said his - the package is going to prioritize, in his words, kids, jobs and health care.

One thing in particular we're looking for is McConnell says he wants more money for schools that are dealing with the challenges of in-person learning. Republicans really want to get kids back in school, physically back in school this fall. And he's also been more cautious about this all along. You know, Republicans were really hoping that at this point in the year, the virus would be more contained and the economic picture would be a bit better. But as we know, the virus is surging in many states, and unemployment is hovering at about 11%. So Congress clearly has some work to do.

GREENE: Yeah. I think we were all hoping to be in a different place at this moment. So as you look at how this plays out, I mean, are there certain provisions or issues that you think will, you know, might become sticking points?

DAVIS: You know, one thing I think many Americans are watching for is to see what Congress does with expanded unemployment benefits. Back earlier in the year, they approved in one of their first packages this additional $600 benefit that people got in addition to traditional unemployment. And that expires basically at the end of this week, at the end of the month. And so the question is, are they going to extend that? Are they going to zero it out? Are they going to consider other ways to get cash payments to Americans? Republicans have been reluctant to back that $600 again because they say it disincentivizes people from going back to work, and employers have a hard time getting their employees to come back if they're making more money not working.

One other issue that we're watching is McConnell has said that he will not allow anything to pass the Senate unless it has liability protections in it for health care workers and businesses, essentially to prevent people from suing over things related to the pandemic. He says this is a red line for him. And among - for the White House, President Trump is saying he may not sign a bill unless it includes a payroll tax cut. Even though this isn't really something that anyone on Capitol Hill is advocating for, it's going to be part of the debate because if the president wants it and isn't going to sign it, you know, they may have to find some resolution there, too.

GREENE: And, of course, the president fighting for reelection. I mean, we have a presidential election that is coming really soon. Is there any way to keep politics out of this whole thing?

DAVIS: You know, no and especially cause this is the kind of legislation that people are really paying attention to. This isn't just like Washington doing its thing. It's going to have a direct relation on millions of people's lives. And the president isn't - you know, the country doesn't think he's doing a very good job right now. It's affecting his race with the vice president. His approval ratings are down. It's affecting down-ballot races. The Senate, which Republicans control, is in play. The political winds right now are shifting towards Democrats in this exact moment. So it may give Democrats some leverage where, you know, this bill will call for more spending and more benefits. But Republicans would really like a win to go campaign on in November.

GREENE: NPR's Susan Davis. Sue, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.