US House Democrats unveil $3 trillion coronavirus bill

Reuters , Tuesday 12 May 2020

Healthcare workers wait for patients to be tested at a walk-in Covid-19 testing site on May 12, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. AFP

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday unveiled a $3 trillion-plus coronavirus relief package including funding for the post office and testing, though the top Senate Republican had already bashed the idea.

The new legislation includes nearly $1 trillion in long-sought assistance for state and local governments that are bearing the brunt of a pandemic that has infected 1,359,000 in the United States and killed at least 80,600.

It also includes $75 billion for testing people for the novel coronavirus, direct payments of up to $6,000 per U.S. household, $10 billion in emergency grants for small business and $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service. The bill would also extend enhanced federal unemployment payments through next January.

House leaders are expected to call lawmakers back to Washington on Friday for a possible vote on the bill.

But Congress appears to be heading for a legislative stand-off over rival partisan demands, including a Republican push to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the virus and the COVID-19 disease that it causes.

Republicans say they want to hold off on new coronavirus relief legislation to assess the impact of nearly $3 trillion in response assistance that Congress has allocated since early March, as states move to reopen a shuttered U.S. economy. Tens of millions of people have lost jobs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected the expected House measure sight unseen, calling it "a partisan wish list with no chance - no chance - of becoming law."

McConnell said he and fellow Senate Republican John Cornyn are spearheading a broad legislative package of liability protections for businesses, schools and government agencies.

McConnell has demanded that the legislation be included in any new coronavirus relief package. But Democrats in both the House and Senate have rejected the idea of liability protections and accused Republicans of trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to usher in long-sought tort reforms.

"Overbroad immunity from any accountability will be, in fact, a poison pill if it is included in the next emergency bill, COVID 4," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told Reuters. Blumenthal sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was due to hold a hearing on the issue later on Tuesday.

With U.S. officials warning that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to new outbreaks, business lobbying groups have been pressing Congress for legal safe harbors to prevent employees, customers and others from suing companies that follow accepted health guidelines.

"We are going to make sure it is the trial lawyers, and not struggling job creators, that will need to clear a very high legal burden," McConnell said on the Senate floor. 

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