Leading Republicans were preparing to meet Donald Trump on Monday over the United States’ next Covid-19 aid package as the administration baulked at calls for more virus testing money and interjected other priorities that could complicate relief plans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was prepared to roll out the $1 trillion (£800 billion) package in a matter of days, but divisions between the Senate Republican majority and the White House posed fresh challenges.
Congress will return session this week as the coronavirus crisis many had hoped would have improved by now continues to worsen — and just as earlier federal emergency relief expires.
Mr Trump insisted again on Sunday that the virus would “disappear” – a view that did not match projections from the leading health professionals straining to halt the US’s alarming caseloads and death toll.
Mr McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy were set to meet with Mr Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “to fine-tune” the legislation, acting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Fox News.
The package from Mr McConnell had been quietly crafted behind closed doors for weeks and was expected to include $75 billion to help schools reopen, reduced unemployment benefits alongside a fresh round of direct $1,200 (£958) cash payments to Americans, and a sweeping five-year liability shield against coronavirus lawsuits.
But as the White House weighed in, the administration was criticising plans calling for some $25 billion (£19.96 billion) in proposed new funds for testing and tracing, said one Republican familiar with the discussions. The administration’s objections were first reported by The Washington Post.
Mr Trump was also reviving his push for a payroll tax break, which was being seriously considered, said another Republican who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The new push from the White House put the administration at odds with GOP allies in Congress, a disconnect that threatened to upend an already difficult legislative process. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi already passed the Democrats’ vast $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) proposal and virus cases and deaths had only increased since.
Mr Trump raised alarms on Capitol Hill when he suggested last month that he wanted to slow virus testing.
Some of Mr Trump’s GOP allies wanted new money to help test and track the virus to contain its spread. Senate Democrats were investigating why the Trump administration had not yet spent some of $25 billion previously allocated for testing in an earlier aid bill.
The payroll tax Mr Trump wanted has also divided his party. Senate Republicans in particular opposed the payroll tax break as an insufficient response to millions of out-of-work Americans, especially as they tried to keep the total price tag of the aid package at no more than $1 trillion.
Mr Trump said on Sunday in the Fox News interview that he would consider not signing any bill unless it included the payroll tax break, which many GOP senators opposed.
“I want to see it,” he said.
Politicians were returning to a partially closed Capitol building still off-limits to tourists to consider what will be a fifth Covid-19 aid package.
After passing the $2.2 trillion (£1.76 trillion) relief bill in March, Republicans hoped the virus would ease and the economy would rebound so more aid would not be needed.
But with Covid-19 cases hitting alarming new highs and the death roll rising, the apparent repeat of the pandemic’s devastating cycle has left Congress little choice but to engineer another costly rescue.
It’s not going to magically disappearSenate majority leader Mitch McConnell on the coronavirus
Businesses have been shutting down again, schools have been unable to fully reopen, and jobs are continuing to disappear, all while federal emergency aid expires.
“It’s not going to magically disappear,” said a sombre Mr McConnell last week during a visit to a hospital in his home state Kentucky to thank front-line workers.
As Mr McConnell prepared to roll out his $1 trillion-plus proposal, he acknowledged it would not have full support.
The political stakes were high for all sides before the November election, but even more so for the nation, which now registered more coronavirus infections and a higher death count than any other country.