WASHINGTON ― Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday introduced and set up a floor vote for a leaner Republican coronavirus relief bill, but it does not contain the billions of dollars the defense industry has sought to diffuse the economic impact of the pandemic.
The bill, which includes some of the elements of the $1 trillion package the GOP proposed in July, is intended to break a weekslong partisan stalemate. However, it has a slim chance of passage in the face of Democrats' insistence for more sweeping aid.
“The Senate Republican majority is introducing a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent health-care, education and economic issues. It does not contain every idea our party likes,” McConnell said in a statement. “I will be moving immediately today to set up a floor vote as soon as this week.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what the differences, if any, were to an earlier version that Senate Republicans floated last month. Both draft bills excluded the $29 billion for defense that the GOP included in its previous $1 trillion package.
The $1 trillion proposal from July contained $11 billion to reimburse defense contractors for coronavirus-related expenses, as authorized by Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. which expires Sept. 30. Defense firms and trade associations have lobbied for an extension of Section 3610 as well as the funding, fearing the Pentagon would otherwise have to tap modernization and readiness accounts.
The move comes as lawmakers straggle back to Washington for an abbreviated preelection session, as hopes are dimming for another coronavirus relief bill — or much else.
Passage of an extension for Section 3610 and any funding may have a better chance if lawmakers can attach it to and pass a stopgap continuing resolution before Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends and 2020 appropriations run out. However, defense industry observers were pessimistic on Tuesday.
“I don’t see any of the COVID package procurement money making it into the CR, and the CR is a high hurdle in any event,” a defense industry source told Defense News. “This Senate bill is a ‘press release’ bill and not a piece of legislation that has a chance of passing into law.”
Several Republican senators in tough reelection bids are eager to show constituents they are working to ease the pandemic’s strain on jobs, businesses and health care. But many Senate Republicans are resisting more spending.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that the GOP conference would discuss the legislation during a meeting on Wednesday.
McConnell’s move Tuesday would clear the way for a Thursday test vote in which the $500 billion, scaled-back bill — roughly half the size of a measure McConnell unveiled earlier this summer — is sure to be blocked by Democrats.
McConnell’s bill would provide more than $100 billion to help schools reopen, enact a shield against lawsuits for businesses and others that are powering ahead to reopen, create a scaled-back supplemental jobless benefit of $300-per-week, and write off $10 billion in earlier post office debt. (The National Defense Industrial Association is among groups that have called for a liability shield.)
But the bill won’t contain another round of $1,200 direct payments going out under President Donald Trump’s name.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., continues to demand $2.2 trillion, and while Trump’s negotiators have signaled a willingness to inch further in her direction, a significant gap remains.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., rapped McConnell in a statement Tuesday for resisting earlier calls to work on an economic stimulus bill. They called the most recent bill “political” and a nonstarter with Democrats.
“As they scramble to make up for this historic mistake, Senate Republicans appear dead-set on another bill which doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere,” Pelosi and Schumer said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.