PD Editorial: Partisan divide delays relief bill

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As we write this on Tuesday afternoon, it’s unclear whether Democrats and Republicans in Washington will strike a deal on a stimulus bill to help the country survive the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. “Last night, I thought we were on the 5-yard line,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Right now, we’re on the 2.”

But they were optimistic last week, too.

Economists, politicians and even the public broadly agree that the economic fallout of the coronavirus demands a strong, immediate federal response. People are losing their jobs, being laid off or taking pay cuts. Businesses are closing. And no one is spending much money while sheltering in place.

Congress, however, can’t seem to get out of its own way. A stimulus bill pitched by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was blocked by a Democratic filibuster on Sunday and Monday. A Democratic bill in the House struggled as Republicans raised concerns on Tuesday.

The House and Senate bills have much in common. For example, many Americans would receive financial help. The precise amount differs, but there was room to strike a deal. At least a quarter of Sonoma County households wouldn’t be eligible or would have to pay the money back eventually, under proposed income caps.

Both bills have help for struggling businesses, hospitals and emergency agencies and the increasing number of people on food stamps.

There are differences, but not all of them are insurmountable. For example, a debate about whether Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin should have unfettered ability to allocate a pool of business aid was an important one. Democrats were right to demand greater accountability.

Many of the challenges to bipartisanship were in ancillary measures that didn’t belong in these bills. The House bill treats this emergency as an opportunity to ram through long-sought policies popular with liberals. It would bolster unions, restructure corporate boards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some or all of those might be noble goals, but this isn’t the right bill for them.

Republicans snuck in their own poison pills, too, like a provision to deny support to some nonprofits. It was written to target the conservative boogeyman Planned Parenthood.

This is the third attempt at a coronavirus relief bill. The first two went to the president quickly and without all the drama. The first one allocated money for vaccination research, health care equipment and loan subsidies for small businesses. The second funded food assistance for children who rely on school meals, unemployment insurance for laid-off workers, coronavirus testing and reimbursements for businesses that give workers paid sick leave.

The first two bills will cost about $110 billion. The third bill will cost $2 trillion or more. No wonder things got so contentious.

This shouldn’t be so hard. The sorts of stimulus needed are not complicated. Provide cash to help households weather lost wages. Aid businesses so that they can survive and continue to employ people now or after the crisis passes. Support social safety net programs that will strain as so many people lose their income.

Sure, there would be details to work out and compromises to make, but that should have been attainable much more quickly given the magnitude of the challenge. Hopefully as you’re reading this with your morning coffee, they got the ball over the finish line Tuesday night, and we can all breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

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