Romney and bipartisan group propose a $908 billion emergency COVID-19 relief package

A bipartisan rank-and-file group of senators and representatives — including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — unveiled a proposed $908 billion emergency pandemic relief package Tuesday, hoping to break a monthslong impasse among congressional leaders and President Donald Trump.

“COVID has created a crisis, and in a crisis, the people expect Congress to act,” Romney said at a U.S. Capitol news conference. “And this group has come together to propose action.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said, “It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge.”

The package would include such things as $300 a week in extra federal unemployment benefits for 18 weeks (Democrats had sought twice as much); $288 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses keep workers employed; and $45 billion in aid for airlines and mass transit.

Additionally, it would extend deferrals for student loan payments and rental housing assistance. Moreover, it would provide funds to produce and distribute vaccines for COVID-19.

Romney said he usually is hesitant to borrow money, but now is one of the rare times that it is warranted.

“I happen to be a deficit hawk. I don’t like borrowing money. I don’t like spending money we don’t have. But the time to borrow money — maybe the only time to borrow money — is when there is a crisis,” the Utah Republican said. “This is a crisis. We want to help people.”

He added, “We’ve got people unemployed. We’ve got businesses shutting down. We’ve got states and localities getting ready for layoffs of large numbers of people. It’s simply unacceptable for us not to respond in this circumstance.”

Romney said the Republicans and Democrats who have been negotiating worked together for what they feel is a fair compromise, and neither side received everything it sought.

“This is not a $1.8 trillion stimulus bill,” Romney said, referring to some earlier bigger proposals. “This is a relief measure — half that amount, $908 billion.”

He added that $560 billion is being repurposed from earlier relief bills, “so the amount of new money is actually $348 billion.” Romney and others said the new Congress and President-elect Joe Biden could come back later to add more relief as needed.

Romney and others said they have been in communication with House and Senate leaders of both parties, and Trump. They are unsure whether all of them will support it but believe pressure from the public will lead to passage of some relief before Christmas.

“I don’t have any prediction on how the White House would react,” Romney said. “We also communicated with the majority leader’s office about what we’re working on, but neither has communicated whether they would support or not support what we have put together.”

Romney said, “We have communicated with [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin about our negotiations, but he hasn’t weighed in on whether he agrees or disagrees. He’s offered some advice” on aid for such things as what airlines and other industries may need.

During testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Mnuchin said he would look at the package, adding that it is important to find “what we can pass quickly on a bipartisan basis to target the most difficult parts of the economy.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said at the Tuesday news conference, “Our action to provide emergency relief is needed now more than ever before. The people need to know we are not going to leave until we get something accomplished.”

(Patrick Semansky | AP file photo) Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 5. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Manchin, is putting pressure on congressional leaders to accept a split-the-difference solution to the months-long impasse on COVID-19 relief in a last-gasp effort to ship overdue help to a hurting nation before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

As an example of compromise, the proposal includes $160 million in funding for state and local governments — a key priority for Democrats that had been opposed by most Republicans.

At the same time, it would contain a temporary moratorium on some coronavirus-related lawsuits against firms, a key GOP priority that most Democrats had opposed.

“Liability protection is critical,” Romney said. He said the temporary moratorium on COVID-related lawsuits gives states time to put their own protections in place.

“I would never think about putting a new business in a state that didn’t have liability protection for COVID,” he said. “Some states already have it. My state of Utah has.”

Among other members who have been negotiating the package and unveiled it were Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Angus King, I-Maine; and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second highest-ranking Democrat, was involved in negotiations but chose not to appear with others at the news conference. He said in a Senate speech that he disagreed with the group’s decisions — especially on the liability suit moratorium that Romney praised — but added that’s he willing to continue to work on it.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, was among House members pushing the compromise, and is part of the “problem solvers” of centrist Democrats and Republicans who helped negotiate it.

McAdams, who lost his reelection bid, said, “Millions of hardworking families and small businesses are struggling as a result of this pandemic. We should seize this bipartisan opportunity to get something done and help them receive the boost they need now. Congress should do its job and show results.”