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Manchin optimistic as deadline for COVID-19 aid package deal nears

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., bumps elbows at a U.S. Economic Development Administration event in Charleston Monday. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — As White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress struggle to come up with a deal on a fourth phase of COVID-19 funding for medical and economic needs, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is hopeful a bill could be voted on next week.

Manchin held a video conference call to discuss the next package as negotiations continue between U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The parties planned to meet again.

“We have been making some progress, proceeding in a positive way. We’re not there yet,” Pelosi said Thursday during a press conference from Capitol Hill.

Manchin said lawmakers were told to be prepared next week to vote on a possible package.

“My gut tells me that we’ll be voting by next Wednesday at the latest on a package,” Manchin said. “I really believe we’ll come to an agreement.”

Both sides had set an unofficial deadline of today to come to a deal on the fourth phase of coronavirus relief after Congress passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Recovery Act at the end of March. If a deal can’t be reached, President Donald Trump has threatened to use executive orders to push through some of his relief plans.

“If we can’t reach an agreement on the major issues, it’s going to be hard to complete a deal,” Mnuchin told Bloomberg News Wednesday.

“If Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows tell (Trump) we’re at an impasse and he would try to move in to act, it would be hard for him to move in and act if the money has run out, because it’s the legislature that appropriates the money,” Manchin said. “Unless he has a slush fund or take money from different projects that have already been appropriated, I don’t know how he would do it.”

Two bills are competing between the House and the Senate that are separated by $2 trillion dollars. Last week, Senate Republicans unveiled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability protection, and Schools Act with a price tag of $1 trillion.

Among other things, the H.E.A.L.S. Act would replace the $600-per-week unemployment benefit, which expired last week, with $200 per week until the end of September, when it would decrease to 70 percent of the recipient’s lost wages. The bill would also put more money in the Paycheck Protection Program and increase tax breaks for businesses who retain employees. The price tag for the Senate plan is $1 trillion.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed its pandemic relief package in May, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act. The bill includes direct funding for municipalities and an extension of the $600-per-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. The House plan has a $3 trillion price tag.

Among the biggest disagreements between the negotiating parties is the amount of continued unemployment relief. Manchin said an extension of the $600 per week unemployment benefit should have happened weeks ago.

“Why do we wait until it’s the last minute,” Manchin said. “Why do we wait until there is a crisis to do something? We had plenty of time to work this out. We knew it was coming.”

Manchin has said he would like to see more money directed toward rural hospitals fighting COVID-19, youth homelessness caused by coronavirus-related economic conditions and broadband expansion with WiFi hotspots that can be borrowed from public libraries.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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