Timing, Scope of Next Coronavirus Response Legislation Still Unclear

There is a consensus in Washington that response to the coronavirus and its attendant economic disruption will require much more federal assistance to be provided by legislation. But no consensus exists yet on when and how any more “CV” aid will be provided.

To review:

CV1 was Public Law 116-123, the $8 billion bill enacted on March 6.

CV2 was Public Law 116-127, the $192 billion bill enacted on March 18.

CV3 was Public Law 116-136, the $2+ trillion bill enacted on March 27 (a.k.a. the CARES Act). (It will be at least another week before a budget score of this bill is available – in particular, when a bill substantially increases the dollar amount of unemployment benefits received by each unemployed person, you have to have a guess as to how many people will be unemployed and for how long in order to come up with a cost estimate, and we are way off the edge of the map on that kind of modeling.)

Even when Congress was putting the finishing touches on CV3, they were already looking ahead to the eventual enactment of CV4. Particularly House Democratic leaders, who promised their members that they would take a more active role in negotiating the next bill and including more of their members’ priorities, since CV3 was negotiated largely by Senate leaders since the Senate was still in session and the House was not.

After passing CV3, both chambers left town until April 20 (at least). But even before the membership returns to town, there have already been attempts to pass changes to CV3.

Yesterday, viewers who tuned in to what was supposed to be a 30-second pro forma session of the Senate got to watch an episode of the recurring Senate show “Dueling UC Requests.” First, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got up to ask unanimous consent to pass a two-page bill that simply amended the amount of money provided by the CV 3.0 law for the oversubscribed program providing convertible loans to small businesses (“convertible” meaning that the loans become grants if used to maintain payroll and pay rent) by $251 billion. This was referred to by some on the Hill as “CV 3.5” (or, in the Apple designation, “CV 3S”) – not a full-fledged new coronavirus response package.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) objected and then tried his own unanimous consent request, to pass a 40-page bill with a $185 billion increase in the convertible loan program plus over $315 billion in other programs – $65 billion in other loans, $100 billion in aid to hospitals, $150 billion in aid to state and local governments, plus uncounted changes in the SNAP program. McConnell objected to that, and the Senate adjourned until next week.

Talks are continuing behind the scenes to see if a compromise can be reached by the time the Senate convenes again on Monday morning for its next session . House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gave an update on those talks during her weekly press conference yesterday (transcript here). But Pelosi and the Senate leaders agree that what may or may not pass next week by unanimous consent is not a full-fledged CV4 bill (or “CARES 2,” as Pelosi is calling it).

In the middle of last week, there was much discussion of perhaps including a massive infrastructure funding package as part of CV4. But last Saturday night (April 4), Speaker Pelosi sent all House colleagues an open letter outlining her priorities for CV4: “CARES 2 must go further in assisting small businesses including farmers, extending and strengthening unemployment benefits and giving families additional direct payments.  We must also provide the desperately needed resources for our state and local governments, hospitals, community health centers, health systems and health workers, first responders and other providers on the frontlines of this crisis.”

No mention of infrastructure – but the topic will still be addressed in the coming months, just probably not in CV4 legislation, and maybe not in the context of immediate coronavirus response at all. (Long-term capital spending doesn’t make good short-term economic stimulus, and we are still a long way away from knowing how deep and long this recession will be.)

But while the CV 3S bill may get negotiated so it can pass both chambers by unanimous consent (and the simpler the bill is, the easier that is to do), people seem to agree that CV4 will require votes in the House and Senate. And, while leaders in both chambers said they would reconvene on Monday, April 20 (which is when the previously scheduled two-week Easter-Passover recess ends), that is looking less likely since social distancing and mandatory stay-at-home orders in most places now extend well past that point.

Pelosi said yesterday that remote voting on the House floor is still not an option, but “we don’t want anybody coming back at any time that might not be healthy for them.” And the chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee said yesterday that he thought it “unlikely” that the Senate would be back and voting on April 20, either.

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