Key senators and White House negotiators said Wednesday they had reached a deal on a key piece of their stimulus package, setting the stage for the release of their long-awaited full proposal.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, announced the “fundamental agreement” on the funding piece of the GOP plan, which would include $105 billion for schools and additional billions in funds for testing.
“I think our agreement reflects our priorities, which is back to school, back to child care, back to work,” Senate Health Chairman Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters as he and his colleagues emerged from the third closed-door meeting in two days with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The agreement marks progress in what has been an unwieldy several days on Capitol Hill for Republicans, with splits on policy becoming public between Republican senators and the White House – and among Senate Republicans themselves.
Locking in the funding levels marked a step forward, but that serves as only a piece of a $1 trillion proposal that will include funding for schools, liability protections, direct payments for individuals and families, another round of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans, and incentives for companies to hire and retain workers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told members he plans to unveil the package Thursday not as a single bill, but in pieces based on jurisdiction, GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told reporters. That will mark the start of negotiations with House Democrats, who passed their own $3 trillion proposal in May and have been waiting for Senate Republicans and the White House to put down a marker of their own.
The talks come at an urgent moment – the $600 federal enhancement to weekly unemployment benefits expires at the end of the month with millions still out of work. The White House on Wednesday raised the possibility of a short-term extension of the benefits to provide more time to reach a broader agreement, but Senate GOP leadership rejected the idea, wary of disincentivizing a wide-ranging final agreement.
Blunt, the chairman of the health panel on the Appropriations Committee, said the appropriations agreement would include $105 billion for schools that would be divided as $70 billion for K-12, $30 billion for colleges and universities and $5 billion for governors to use at their discretion.
Of the $70 billion, $35 billion would be for all schools on a per capita basis and the remaining amount would be directed toward schools reopening and the costs associated with that.
Specific language will be included in the proposal to provide guidelines for how schools would qualify for the second pot of money, but the proposal would leave much of the decision making up to governors.
“The bill lets most of the determination threshold be defined by governors in their state, rather than trying to have one national standard irrespective of whatever their health care environment,” Blunt said.
The money for colleges and universities would not be tied to any reopening plans, Blunt said.
Additionally, the agreement includes funds for testing – a major sticking point between White House negotiators and their Senate GOP counterparts. The topline number would be $25 billion, which would comprise $16 billion in new funds and a commitment from the administration to designate for use the $9 billion in leftover funds.
The final agreement served as a compromise of sorts, as GOP senators were pushing for a full $25 billion in new funds.
“Each and every day was not about their own agenda,” Meadows said of his Senate negotiating counterparts. “It was about the American people’s agenda.”
Shelby said there were “a few little things” staff needed to close out but that the full appropriations package will be released Thursday.
Meadows said no final decisions had been made about what the GOP proposal would include on the extension of the federal enhancement of unemployment insurance or what has been decided on a payroll tax cut, which President Donald Trump has made a priority in spite of resistance from a large number of Republican senators.
In a call with GOP aides, leadership staff said the proposal would include a two-month extension of the federal enhancement of unemployment benefits at a flat rate, but did not identify the rate, according to a person on the call.