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Manchin, Collins and bipartisan group of lawmakers unveil their COVID emergency relief bills

MORGANTOWN — Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, led a bipartisan group of senators and representatives assembled Monday to unveil their $908 billion emergency COVID-19 relief bills.

The two bills spell out the details of the proposed relief framework they announced Dec. 1. Virtually all who spoke expressed their astonishment and pleasure that they were able to bridge the partisan divide that has kept post-CARES legislation in limbo for nine months.

“Bipartisanship and compromise is alive and well in Washington,” Manchin said. “Now it’s up to leadership to take it and make this happen on a timely basis.”

Collins commented, “I think we’ve had a Christmas miracle occur in Washington.”

The legislation comes in two bills, the lawmakers explained, because the bulk of it – $748 billion worth covering nearly 600 pages – is agreed to and ready for floor action if leadership will take it up.

The remaining $160 billion in the much smaller – not quite an inch thick – bill is still under negotiation, they said. It deals with two sticking points: state and local funding wanted by Democrats and liability protection wanted by Republicans. Both sides agreed the issues are related; the primary area of negotiation is the details of the liability protection.

Their ultimate hope, they said, is to reach full agreement on the smaller bill and merge both together.

CARES Act funding is set to expire at the end of the year, Manchin said. If passed into law, this package would serve retroactively from Dec. 1 through March 31.

“This gets assistance to lots of Americans who are in desperate need,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

The $748 billion bill extends unemployment assistance for another 16 weeks at $300 per week; provides $300 billion to continue the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses; $13 billion for emergency food assistance; $25 billion for rental assistance along with an extension of the eviction moratorium through Jan. 31; $35 billion for health care provider relief, including $7 billion for local providers.

It also includes money for COVID testing and vaccines; substance abuse prevention and treatment and mental health, K-12 and higher education ($82 billion); broadband; transportation; and a student loan forbearance extension to April 1.

The smaller bill provides $8 billion for tribes and $152 billion to state and local governments. One third of the $152 billion would go out based on state population. Two thirds would be based on state revenue losses relative to state losses nationwide. The money could not be used for pension funds.

The money would go out in three allotments, called tranches. The first, $50.66 billion, would go out with in 30 days of enactment. It would include the population-based funding and a first round of eds-based funding.

The second, about $52 billion, would be needs-based for losses incurred from Oct. 1 through March 31, 2021. The third tranche would include a minimum $10 billion for state and local losses incurred from April 1, 2021 through June 30.

Each state would receive a minimum $500 million. Governors would be required to distribute at least 40% to local governments, equitably, based either on population, proportional revenue loss or a combination of both.

This bill also extends the deadline to spend CARES money to Dec. 31, 2021.

As it stands, subject to further negotiation, the bill is intended to protect employers – including schools and higher education – from suits based on employees contracting COVID. It establishes a nationwide gross negligence standard.

It allows plaintiffs to file in state court and defendants to file to remove the case to federal court.

And, among other provisions, it “provides that employers are not subject to liability under federal employment law in COVID-19 exposure cases or change in working conditions related to COVID-19 if the employer was trying to conform to public health standards and guidance.”

It also protects public accommodations that take measures to protect against COVID-19.

Lawmakers of both parties – and one Independent – noted that there are other measures they would have liked to include and may still be addressed, but that these bills cover the immediate emergency needs and reflect long hours of negotiation and compromise.

Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J, and Tom Reed, R-N.Y, co-chairs of the 50-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, both expressed the caucus’ unanimous support for the main bill and their hope to reach agreement on the smaller bill.

Speakers said they hope to get something to the floor by the end of this week and nearly all emphasized the need to pass it before they break for Christmas.

Wrapping up the press conference, Manchin said, “We will not go home for Christmas until we pass legislation that gives relief to the American people.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is part of the Senate leadership team. Asked for comment on these bills, she said in an email exchange, “I’m glad this proposal includes similar provisions that are in the targeted relief legislation Republicans introduced back in July known as the HEALS Act, which I have strongly supported. As I’ve said time and time again, it’s important we provide relief for the areas that need it the most and it’s important we do this as soon as possible.”

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