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Congress resumes pandemic relief deliberations, but Republicans remain divided

Coronavirus infections and deaths are still climbing in much of the nation, and Florida has become the new national epicenter. With Congress back in session after recess, continuing COVID-19 increases are fueling urgent negotiations on an economic rescue package. But lawmakers are deeply divided about what the legislation should include. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID-19 infections and deaths are still climbing tonight in much of the nation. And now President Trump says the pandemic will probably get worse before it gets better.

    That, in turn, is fueling negotiations on an economic rescue package.

    Our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the current epicenter of the nation's COVID-19 battle, dire news of caseloads becoming death toll. For the first time, Florida reported more deaths than any other state. In Tallahassee, Governor Ron DeSantis tried to ease concerns.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla:

    Floridians, I think there's a lot of anxiety and fear out there, and I think that folks just — it's going to be — we're going to be able to get through it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This as Washington shifted from summer recess to sudden high gear on the next COVID relief bill. All sides agree on the urgency.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're making a lot of progress. I also know that both sides want to get it done. We will call it phase four. I think we're going to get it done.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But there is deep divide over what to do. Republican senators don't yet agree on their plan, but have said it would be about a trillion or more in spending.

    A few, like Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, say the spending has gotten out of control.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky:

    They're talking about spending another trillion dollars. It's fiscally irresponsible, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats in the House already passed their proposal in May, the sweeping $3 trillion HEROES Act.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.:

    The coronavirus is a once-in-a-century pandemic that requires a once-in-a-century, meaningful congressional intervention. That is what we did when we passed the HEROES Act. That is the type of agreement we need to come to at this moment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A solid deal is still far off, with additional sticking points between Republican senators and the White House, which sent Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to the Hill for talks today.

    Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany outlined some of the president's priorities, add a payroll tax cut and block any additional testing money for states.

  • Kayleigh McEnany:

    We're willing to put in money for targeted testing that makes sense, not just dumping money into a pot that already contains $10 billion.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some Republicans on the Hill voiced concern over that.

  • Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo:

    I think we want to be sure, in dealing with the administration , that the money we have put into testing already is still available, if it hasn't been spent. We want to continue to focus on tests.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell again marked his red line moving forward in negotiations.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky:

    I won't put a bill on the floor that doesn't have liability protection in it. Don't mischaracterize what this is about. This is not just for businesses, for hospitals, doctors, nurses.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He said a bill will come in the next few days, and that there will also be another round of direct payments to Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa was at the Capitol today, as you can tell, following these negotiations all day long.

    And she joins me now.

    So, Lisa, set the table for us.

    We understand there's disagreement up there, but talk about first where there's agreement. What do we think is going to be in this bill probably for sure?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's important to talk about that, because this is a bill that could get the American economy through the next however many months. We don't know how many.

    First of all, there is agreement — let's look at a graphic quickly on a few things — one, that there should be another round of small business funds known as PPP. That's the program that has kept so many small businesses going during this part of the pandemic.

    That looks like it will be renewed. We don't know what degree. Another round of stimulus checks also. Again, not sure how large those checks should be, and it's possible those stimulus checks may go to fewer Americans. They may be more targeted. But it looks like that is something that most of Congress agrees on.

    Also helps for schools, Judy, that's a new item that is now entering discussions and is creating a great deal of urgency on both sides. As schools are trying to reopen in just a few weeks, Congress is now figuring out how to try and fund schools that want to open and those that want to go only online. It's a very large debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let me ask you now about some of the difference.

    As you pointed out, the House passed their version of this back at the end of May. What are the main difference between what the House wanted and what the Senate is likely to do?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, I have to say, this negotiation is maybe more complicated and has more issues in it than any other I have ever covered.

    But there are a few that we can point to as sort of top-level issues. Let's look at what the priorities are that the two sides disagree on. First, for Democrats, are one of their priorities is that expanded unemployment benefits, $600 per week for each person on unemployment above what they would normally get.

    That — Judy, that benefit runs out July 31, in just a couple of weeks. Democrats want to extend it through the end of the year for everyone on unemployment.

    Republicans, their priority, as you heard from Leader McConnell, liability protection for businesses. Now, this gets a little bit complicated, but he essentially wants to make sure that no business can be sued for someone getting the virus or being harmed by the virus who used that business.

    And that is something they say is critical to them. He says some 3,000 lawsuits have been filed over the pandemic so far. Others say they're not sure if this is that priority that it needs to — that he is saying it should be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, what about what's next? The Republicans had said that they might have a draft plan as early as today. What it's looking like now?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, we are in extraordinary times. And it was an extraordinary day at the Capitol today, Judy.

    I stood outside the Senate Republican luncheon, where Senate Republicans were meeting with the chief of staff and the Treasury secretary. The idea was, they were supposed to all get on board their plan for what to do about this virus, what to do about our economy.

    And, instead, Judy, they walked out with less agreement than they had going in. When you talk to people in the room, they said that there were, instead of one or two ideas, 50 ideas, many senators bringing up billions of dollars in requests here, maybe for the hotel industry, maybe for another industry in their state, that they are divided amongst themselves.

    And, Judy, they are also divided with their president. The president is asking specifically for the payroll tax cut. That is something most Republicans and most Democrats disagree with, but for Republicans behind closed doors, difficult to break with the president, even though they're starting to publicly state that.

    And one other area, Judy, where there is a disagreement amongst Republicans with their president, on testing. Let's look at a graphic on where everyone stands on that critical issue.

    Right now, in this relief bill, the White House has sent mixed signals, saying it supports more testing, but not a great deal of it. They feel like there's money already that could be used for it. Most Senate Republicans disagree with that. They say there is no more money left, and they are proposing right now about $25 billion for testing to help states get more tests out to you and I, everyone in this country.

    House Democrats, they have proposed $75 billion for testing and tracing. They say Republicans don't go far enough.

    Judy, Democrats met with some Republicans, including the White House chief of staff late today. And to tell you where things are for Republicans, Democrats walked out of that meeting saying, Republicans have no plan. They are in disarray, was the word that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used.

    She said: We can't negotiate with them. We have a plan. They don't. We need Republicans to tell us where they stand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much important material here to follow.

    Lisa, so, given all this, when can Americans look for something final to come out?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, this is all part of the legislative process, of course. We have been through dramatic ups and downs like this on many issues.

    But, Judy, the deadline that many are watching is that July 31 deadline for unemployment benefits to end. That is when millions of Americans will see $600 less per week. That could affect things like rent immediately in August.

    Also, Judy, schools planning to reopen in those first weeks of August are waiting for money. They're saying to Congress that they need some — at least some guidance on what's going to happen.

    Congress had hoped to act by the end of next week. Now, because of the Republicans still seeming to form their plan, I have to say it looks like early August is when I think we could see this whole package get through Congress. But who knows. Things change day to day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of people watching this very, very closely.

    Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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