In the current circumstances, it ought to be a slam dunk. Sadly, in the strange and too often frustrating way Washington works, it may prove not to be.
For months, Congress and the White House have been dithering and delaying over an additional coronavirus aid package, despite clear evidence that the nation will not be back on its feet from a public health and economic standpoint when much of the government aid that’s helped the country limp through the year expires at its end.
The sticking point has seemed to be a mostly philosophical one. The Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 billion stimulus bill in May, and Republicans controlling the Senate eventually responded with what they termed a “skinny” bill calling for just over $500 billion in spending. Negotiations between the parties followed, with the often typically unpredictable involvement of the Trump administration. During them, Senate Republicans rediscovered the traditional aversion to adding to the nation’s debt load they had ignored in the first three years of the Trump administration, and House Democrats remained adamant that holding out for a sweeping package was better than agreeing to a more limited one and hoping for more aid later.
Despite occasional urging from the president that Congress should “go big” on an aid package, the gap narrowed but never closed. Talks broke down as the election loomed, and since then there had been no perceptible movement toward a deal as the year’s clock ticked down.
This Tuesday, however, a bipartisan group of nine senators, notably including New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and seven members of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus stepped forward with a limited, compromise proposal calling for $908 billion of relief and stimulus spending. The largest amounts would be targeted for small businesses (in particular the especially imperiled restaurant industry), supplemental unemployment insurance, state, local and tribal governments and schools, and there would also be spending to prop up health care providers and provide housing assistance.
Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer embraced the proposal. That’s a surprise, given their past insistence on an aid package of at least $2 trillion, and probably reflects the Democratic leadership’s calculation that a further aid package might be possible under the incoming Biden administration.
But thus far the body language from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House is not encouraging, even though the price tag of the compromise bill is significantly closer to what Senate Republicans had proposed in their original “skinny” bill and includes some limited legal liability protections for businesses, a McConnell priority. The reasons are not clear, but the possibilities could include unwillingness to act before the early January Georgia Senate runoff elections or to make the incoming administration’s job easier. It could also reflect continued resistance to additional federal debt, though it’s noteworthy that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and the debt-and-deficits watchdog organization Concord Coalition have long been among those advocating for additional stimulus spending to keep the economy going until the coronavirus is controlled.
Pressure on Senate Republicans and the White House is necessary. New Hampshire stands to receive much needed assistance under the compromise bill, both in aid to state and local governments and schools and in relief for those out of work due to the pandemic and for businesses struggling to keep their heads above water and their staffs employed. Gov. Chris Sununu has throughout the year clamored for more federal aid to state and local governments. Now is the time for him to marshal New Hampshire’s Republican officials and his fellow governors to join him in pressing McConnell and other Republicans in Washington to sign on to the compromise proposal and enact it before they head home for the holidays.