Unemployment assistance, eviction protections and other relief for millions of Americans were at stake as White House officials launched negotiations late Monday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer on a new coronavirus aid package that is teetering in Congress ahead of looming deadlines.
While Senate Republicans struggled to roll out their own $1 trillion proposal, Pelosi implored the White House and GOP lawmakers to stop the infighting and come to the negotiating table with Democrats. Aid runs out Friday for a $600-per-week jobless benefit that Democrats call a lifeline for out-of-work Americans. Republicans want to slash it to $200 a week, saying the federal bump is too generous on top of state benefits and is discouraging employees from returning to work.
“This is wrong. We have to do what’s right for the American people,” Pelosi said at the Capitol afterward.
With the virus death toll climbing and 4.2 million infections nationwide, both parties are eager for a deal. There is widespread agreement that more money is needed for virus testing, to help schools prepare to open in the fall and to shore up small businesses. Voters are assessing their handling of the virus crisis before the November election, and President Donald Trump’s standing is at one of the lowest points of his term, according to a new AP-NORC poll.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met with Pelosi and Schumer for nearly two hours at the speaker’s office. The two top negotiators would be back at it today.
The Republicans come to the negotiating table hobbled by infighting and delays. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to hit “pause” on new spending after Congress approved a sweeping $2.2 trillion relief package in March. But Pelosi, D-Calif., took the opposite approach, swiftly passing a $3 trillion effort with robust Democratic support. In the intervening months, the crisis deepened.
McConnell unveiled his long-awaited proposal. It provides some $105 billion to schools and colleges, the K-12 funds tilted toward campuses that reopen with in-person learning. There’s more money for virus testing, $15 billion for child care centers and benefits for businesses, including a fresh round of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, tax breaks and a sweeping liability shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
Republicans left out new money for cash-strapped states and cities, a priority for Democrats, but included another round of $1,200 direct payments to households that Democrats also support. Based on an earlier formula, people making $75,000 or less would receive the full amount, with the benefit phased out for those earning more than $99,000, or double for married couples filing joint taxes.
The GOP bill also provides $1.7 billion for a new FBI headquarters in Washington, a non-pandemic-related expense that’s a top priority for the president but not for lawmakers or McConnell. Trump’s hotel is across the street from it on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Senate Republicans have offered another bold framework to help our nation,” McConnell said. He called it a starting point in talks.
But Democrats said it was insufficient, and conservative Republicans quickly broke ranks on McConnell’s plan, arguing the spending was too much and priorities misplaced. Half the Republican senators could vote against the bill, some warned, and their opposition leaves McConnell heading into negotiations with Pelosi without the full force of the Senate majority behind him.
“The focus of this legislation is wrong,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, told reporters at the Capitol. “Our priority, our objective, should be restarting the economy.”
As bipartisan talks unfold, the White House is now suggesting a narrower relief package might be all that is possible with Friday’s approaching deadlines.
But Pelosi has resisted tackling a relief package in piecemeal fashion, arguing that broader aid is needed for Americans. “Forget it,” she said. Democrats also panned the Trump administration’s desire to reduce the $600 weekly unemployment aid.
“They managed to have enough money for $2 billion for the FBI headquarters that benefits Trump hotel and they say they have no money for food assistance?” said Schumer.
The $600 weekly jobless benefits boost, approved as part of the March aid package, officially expires Friday, but because of the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff was effectively Saturday.
Under the GOP proposal, the jobless boost would be reduced to $200 a week for two months through September and phased out to a new system that ensures no more than 70% of an employee’s previous pay. They argue reductions are needed because some people earn more on unemployment than at work. States could request an additional two months, if needed, to make the transition.
Democrats pointed to an assessment from economist Mark Zandi, who called it a “poor policy choice.” Zandi said that if the GOP proposal became law, nearly 1 million jobs would be lost by year’s end and the unemployment rate, now above 11%, would climb more than half a percentage point.
Economists widely see signs of trouble in the economy, which showed an uptick in the spring as some states eased stay-home orders and businesses reopened, but it now faces fresh turmoil with a prolonged virus crisis as states clamp down again.
Friday is also the end of a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units that the White House said it wants to extend in some fashion.
At the same time, budget watchers are wary of the rising debt load as Washington piles on unprecedented sums in trying to contain the pandemic and economic fallout.
Salvador “Sal” Perce is something of a marvel.
He turned 100 on Monday, but most people who see him think he is in his 70s.
He still drives the 1998 Oldsmobile Cutlass that he bought new. It has 70,000 miles on it. His body has traveled a lot farther than that.
Perce has volunteered 1,500 hours at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville since 2013, sometimes pushing people’s wheelchairs.
Fellow volunteers, staff and family members surprised him Monday with a cake, a card and voices raised in the “Happy Birthday” song at his home. He clutched the card and smiled continuously during the event.
Perce’s main job at the hospital involves greeting people at the main entrance and helping them find their way to their appointments. He keeps his station tidy and is called on to help clerks with filing, sorting and delivering mail throughout the hospital.
Like other volunteers, he has not been able to work at the hospital since March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He says he’s more than ready to get back to work.
“Staying home, watching four walls, is not much fun,” Perce said.
On the job, “You meet a lot of people. You talk to them. It’s so good to talk to strange people all the time,” he said.
Perce said staff members are good to the volunteers, always coming to say hello.
“People don’t believe my age when I mention it at work,” he said. “Physically, I am in pretty good health.”
He does some of his own shopping, but “I’m not as active as I used to be,” he said.
Perce, born in Cicero, Illinois, was a bus driver and later a supervisor for the Chicago Transit Authority. He and his wife, Mary Lou, had two children. They moved to Janesville after retirement, in 1985. Mary Lou died in 2011.
Perce has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He served with the Army in the Pacific during World War II as U.S. forces captured the Japanese-held islands of Leyte, Peleliu and Angaur, and later he was stationed in Japan itself. He said he is “very proud” of his service.
Asked about his longevity, Perce said he thinks it has something to do with the hard physical labor he performed in his youth.
He said he weighs 167 pounds. He is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, but he used to be taller.
“I kept my body in good shape,” he said.
The Janesville City Council shot down an ordinance change two council members brought Monday that would have barred a restaurant from using a city-owned terrace for outdoor seating after the city already approved such a use.
The council in a 5-2 vote threw out an ordinance change council members Paul Williams and Jim Farrell suggested that sought to prevent restaurants from using public-owned property for outdoor seating.
The issue came up after the city in June had approved a temporary ordinance that streamlined the process for restaurants to file and seek approval for outdoor seating by running applications through Tom Clippert, the city’s chief building official. The change was designed to help restaurants that were trying to adapt to capacity limits brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the new, temporary process, Building Director Tom Clippert will have authority to review and approve requests for outdoor seating.
Of the four restaurants downtown that have been granted outdoor seating expansions under the ordinance, craft cocktail lounge and restaurant Lark, 60 S. Main St., is the only one that has a portion of its outdoor seating set up on city property.
In questions to city attorney Wald Klimczyk, Williams indicated he was concerned about the city’s liability with people drinking alcohol outdoors on city property.
“With alcohol, I feel you need to control it or it could bring problems,” Williams said.
According to a city memo on the rule change, Farrell and Williams both voiced concerns “about some businesses being able to use city-owned property and other businesses not having the opportunity to.”
Williams and Farrell both said the proposed change was not intended as “mean spirited” or to target any one restaurant.
The temporary ordinance only allows the extra outdoor seating to remain until late October. It’s similar to moves some other cities have made to help restaurants cope with the pandemic.
Half of Lark’s 12 outdoor seats are placed on a grass terrace next to the restaurant that is part of the Janesville Senior Center property, a parcel the city owns.
Under Monday’s suggested change, Lark owners Richard and Joan Neeno would have lost half the outdoor seating the city approved earlier this year.
Richard Neeno said the restaurant has experienced an 80% revenue loss during the pandemic.
The point of the outdoor seating ordinance, city staff said earlier, was to allow restaurants to more quickly expand outdoor seating capacity to offset the loss of indoor dining capacity to dining room occupancy rules.
The suggested change would have further hurt a restaurant that is still struggling to fill its inside dining area despite its adherence to social distancing guidelines that would keep the restaurant at half its 56-person occupancy, Joan Neeno said.
“It’s been happening increasingly where people have been asking for outdoor seating. We had a couple who actually ordered takeout, but when they saw we had outdoor tables and asked if they could eat their takeout. They wouldn’t come inside, but they wanted to eat outside. The ordinance has been helping,” Neeno told The Gazette after the council shot down the rule change.
Williams and Farrell were the only council members to vote in favor of their suggested rule change.
“We’re thankful most of the council reaffirmed an interest in downtown businesses, which is good. Because people are struggling to find a way right now,” Richard Neeno said.
Neeno said he was “caught off guard” that Williams and Farrell apparently worried Lark’s location next to a city-owned terrace and across the street from a public pavilion that hosts music was somehow an unfair advantage for Lark.
“The (senior center) terrace is pretty. The music at the Marv (Roth Pavilion) across the street is nice. But when we opened a few years ago, Music at the Marv hadn’t become a big deal yet. And COVID-19 didn’t exist then,” Richard Neeno said.
“It’s not unfair where we’re located,” he said. “We’re not taking advantage. It’s just the luck of location. And it’s chance.”
Joan Neeno put it another way: “Really, all we’re trying to do right now is to survive.”