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Centrists flex muscle: New COVID-19 relief bill on the way?

Just how much influence will Joe Manchin and other centrists have in the next congressional session? A new proposal to break months of gridlock over COVID-19 relief in the lame-duck session might provide a test. With multiple programs set to expire at the end of the year, the US faces a potential economic cliff in the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations — a cliff that so far both parties have glibly ignored from their opposing trenches.

Rank and file members of both chambers of Congress want to go home with at least some relief in hand, however. The Washington Post reports that a bipartisan group of lawmakers have come up with a plan to give both sides half a loaf while keeping the price tag under a trillion dollars. Will they grab at it?

A bipartisan group of senators is expected to unveil an approximately $908 billion stimulus proposal on Tuesday, aiming to break a months-long partisan impasse over providing emergency federal relief to the U.S. economy, according to four people aware of internal negotiations. …

With negotiations between congressional leaders at an impasse, rank-and-file senators in both parties have for several weeks discussed putting together a bipartisan proposal that could break the logjam. Several centrist and dealmaker types in the Senate — including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — are expected to push their new bipartisan agreement as a template for legislation that could pass Congress as the economy faces increasing strain from a winter surge in coronavirus cases.

The plan set to be released by the bipartisan group seeks to reach a middle ground on numerous contentious economic issues. It would provide $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits — a lower amount than the $600 per week sought by Democrats, while still offering substantial relief to tens of millions of jobless Americans — for four more months. The agreement includes $240 billion in funding for state and local governments, a key Democratic priority opposed by most Republicans, as well as a six-month moratorium on some coronavirus-related lawsuits against firms and other entities — a key Republican priority opposed by most Democrats. …

Among those involved in the latest effort include Democratic Sens. Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Mark R. Warner (Va.), as well as Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has also been involved in the discussions, but won’t appear at a news conference later Tuesday unveiling the plan. Among the Republicans involved are Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Bill Cassidy (La.), in addition to Romney and Collins.

That might be enough to get a bill past the 60-vote cloture threshold, but it would be close. Inbound Senator-elect Mark Kelly (D-AZ) might feel compelled to join that group, although Kyrsten Sinema’s absence seems pretty notable. Maybe she’ll be inclined to support it, but why isn’t one of the more approachable Democrats included in this effort in the first place?

Also, where are the House members needed to get this past Nancy Pelosi’s goalkeeping? Pelosi’s insistence on passing the HEROES Act as is has been the main sticking point. She will only have a nine-vote majority next year, but she’s got a bigger majority now. The Senate is the easier nut to crack, and until Pelosi signals that she’s willing to go for half a loaf, no one’s going to get any bread.

And when I say half a loaf, it’s almost literally half of what each side wants. The unemployment compensation got cut exactly in half. Democrats started out asking for nearly a trillion dollars in bloc-granted state aid, and then came down to $495 billion at one point, just over double what this proposal reportedly will offer. The GOP wanted a liability waiver, not a six-month moratorium, and it’s unclear what a six-month delay does. The point of the liability waiver wasn’t to put off lawsuits over reopening attempts for a few months but to eliminate the risk altogether. If the risk still exists six months out, businesses will be reluctant to take risks that might be necessary for survival.

One group didn’t get half a loaf, however. They didn’t even get crumbs, emphasis mine:

The bipartisan agreement includes about $300 billion in funding for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, aides said. It also includes $40 billion to assist hard-hit transit agencies and rental assistance funding for those facing eviction, as well as about $50 billion in health care, including to help with vaccine distribution and testing and tracing of the coronavirus. The effort was expected to leave out a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks, as a way to bring down its overall price tag, though that measure is supported by both Trump and Pelosi.

This is the problem with centrists, or more accurately, with lawmakers that fall in love with either numbers or dealmaking. Voters whose livelihoods have been curtailed or eliminated altogether want that direct relief. A package that ignores them while putting cash into the hands of “hard-hit transit agencies” will be a political disaster, something that Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump are smart enough to know.

It’s also pennywise and pound foolish. The second round of stimulus would cost around $500 billion, so it’s not chump change, but it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. It would put the overall package cost at $1.4 trillion, which is just about the middle ground between the two sides now. Furthermore, there’s significant justification for this kind of stimulus/relief. Savings levels and disposable income have been dropping for months, and in a consumer-activity-oriented economy, that spells disaster. A second round of direct stimulus is warranted to give consumers a bit more confidence heading into a new round of COVID-19 commerce restrictions.

It’s a decent enough first try. But if this is the kind of thinking that the new Centrist Utopia will have on display for the next two years, don’t get your hopes up for an end to gridlock and disappointment.