McConnell floats dropping liability protections, state and local funds from COVID-19 deal

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested on Tuesday that lawmakers drop both liability protections and funding for state and local governments from the coronavirus relief negotiations, and add them to a potential package next year.

The two issues — opposing top priorities for Democrats and Republicans — have been at the center of collapsed COVID-relief deals since the summer.

“Why don’t we set aside the two obviously most contentious issues. We know we’re going to be confronted with another request, after the first of the year,” Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said. “We live to fight [for] those and other day and pass the things that we can agree on.”

Republicans remain wary of funding for state and local governments becoming a “bailout” for mismanaged governments, while Democrats argue it’s necessary money to keep first responders paid.

“We can’t defeat the coronavirus without the dedicated frontline workers nationwide who are doing the essential work to save lives & serve communities. We must take steps to protect their jobs and give them the resources they need to be safe & successful,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, tweeted.

On the other hand, Democrats are skeptical of granting what they feel could be a blanket immunity to employers as workers are at risk of getting the virus when they return to work. Republicans counter that these are extreme circumstances.

“This is not just about businesses. It’s about universities, charities, and others who see this developing epidemic of lawsuits headed their way,” Mr. McConnell said. “It’s not total immunity… this is a one time liability relief related to a once in a 100-year pandemic that kicks out for a period of time then goes away.”

Lawmakers who endorsed a $908 billion bipartisan, bicameral framework for a relief package last week are working feverishly to turn it into legislative text, but are hung up on a handful of policy disagreements — namely the standoff between liability protections vs. state and local funding.

Sens. Angus King, Maine independent, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, are working on language for a liability protection compromise, which Mr. Graham hopes to be ready later Tuesday.

Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the senators backing the bipartisan package, said there are a number of solutions Mr. King and Mr. Graham have been floating, including making a potential affirmative defense for schools and businesses, and they’ve also been discussing the idea of OSHA worker protections, another big priority for the Democrats.

Mr. Romney, Utah Republican, also said the negotiators have made progress on state and local but still have several questions on outstanding policy issues as to how the distribution would be determined.

Sen. Susan Collins, another one of the senators working on the proposal, said they’re still pushing for a deal on both issues, but can see how they might need to settle for a smaller approach.

“Those two issues remain the most difficult to resolve,” the Maine Republican told reporters. “If we can’t [get a deal] then I see a certain logic in passing what we do agree with, given that there’s widespread support for another round of PPP, helping our schools, our health care providers, providing more money for testing and vaccine distribution, all of those — for the Postal Service…My first preference would be for us to try to come up with a solution on both state and local aid and liability.”

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