Michigan lawmakers push compromise plan for virus aid

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan lawmakers are among a group pushing for a $1.5 trillion bipartisan compromise to be the starting point to resuscitate stalled talks over the next coronavirus relief bill in Congress.

FILE - In this May 3, 2020, file photo, light shines from inside the U.S. Capitol dome at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Their pitch has some support from the White House, but Democratic leaders say the proposal is insufficient.

President Donald Trump this week stopped short of endorsing the plan but said he liked the “larger numbers” in the stimulus proposal from the bipartisan House caucus of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans who call themselves the Problem Solvers — a larger spending figure than his administration previously backed.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan's senior Republican in Congress and a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said Friday he sees an opportunity to force a resolution by coupling a coronavirus aid package with a must-pass measure to continue funding the federal government beyond Sept. 30, which is the end of the fiscal year. 

"Otherwise, this gets punted until Thanksgiving or later and that’s just too late. There’s just too many people hurting," said Upton, a vice chair of the bipartisan caucus.

"There is a lot of backroom discussions on trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again and make this a more comprehensive package and deal with COVID, to help our local communities, our states, our schools, another round of stimulus checks, aid for small businesses still struggling, coupled with liability relief."

Rep. Fred Upton

Upton said he has been texting with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, his former GOP House colleague, and participated in a call Thursday with both Democratic and Republican senators, saying he was encouraged that things could come together on a deal in the next couple days. 

"It really is a pretty solid proposal. The whole intent was to inspire our leadership to say, 'OK,'" Upton said. "Sometimes it's the rank and file that the leaders have to follow."

In addition to Upton, Michigan has four members in the Problem Solvers Caucus: U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden; and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly.

Dingell, also a caucus vice chair, emphasized their proposal was meant to be a catalyst to get negotiators back to the table after talks broke down earlier in the summer.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell

"The president himself said that Republicans need to put more money into this. I wish they would all listen themselves. This isn’t funny. This isn’t a game. This is people’s lives,” Dingell said. "I refuse to give up." 

When asked about pairing a virus aid package with government funding, Dingell said both need to pass the Congress. 

"What I fear is that we would screw around with funding the government," she said. "This country cannot afford to have the government shut down."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, backed by her Democratic committee chairs, has said the Problem Solvers' plan is inadequate. She is continuing to hold out on her demand for $2.2 trillion in relief, stressing that Democrats already reduced their demand by $1 trillion. 

Pelosi on Friday dismissed a reporter's question at the Capitol about the caucus' compromise by saying, "Read my statement."

"I respect what they are doing," Pelosi said of the Problem Solvers' group. 

"We have to meet the needs of the American people," she added later. "We know what the needs are. We know what science tells us we need to do, and that's where we have to go." 

Moderate House Democrats, many up for re-election in competitive districts this fall, are leaning on Pelosi to hold votes on coronavirus relief measures, saying it's unacceptable not to act before the election. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Slotkin, a freshman, said she was disappointed by Pelosi rejecting the option as the start of negotiations, saying the American public expects Congress to put politics aside and make a deal. 

"I was pretty frustrated when I saw the response from House leadership because our proposal is very reasonable. It’s very serious. It’s a bridge through February 2021, so the results of the election would be known and we could then negotiate as needed beyond February," Slotkin said.

Pelosi did agree this week — under presssure from Slotkin and other front-line Democrats — to keep the House in session until a deal is made.

“That was a change,” Slotkin said. “If we are going to go back to our districts, we better be doing it knowing we’ve done everything we could to respond to COVID. There’s not an hour that goes by in the district that people don’t ask me the state of the next COVID emergency bill.”

Some GOP leaders have said the Problem Solvers' plan is higher than what would be acceptable to Republicans in Congress. GOP senators' $300 billion "skinny" coronavirus aid bill was blocked by Senate Democrats last week.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, told reporters this week that a figure higher than $1 trillion could be the basis for an agreement, if it can be done by month's end.

“I think there is a deal to be had here,” said Blunt, who chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee. 

"My concern is that the window probably closes at the end of this month, and we need to get busy finding out what we can all agree on," Blunt said. "And I think the number is going to be higher than our trillion dollars."

Mitchell, another member of the Problem Solvers, said he opposed the caucus' "alleged compromise," saying it had "all sorts of flaws." 

"Aid for coronavirus relief needs to be targeted. So let me know why we’re putting $400 billion in there for elections?" Mitchell said. "We’re just throwing money against the wall and hoping it helps."

Rep. Paul Mitchell

The Problem Solvers plan was put together over six weeks and was not kept secret from the White House or leaders from both parties, Upton said. 

The framework marries priorities from both parties, backing $120 billion for supplemental unemployment insurance (enough to cover a $450 weekly supplement for eight weeks), and $280 billion for a second round of stimulus checks for families. 

The plan also calls for $145 billion for K-12 schools and child care, as well as liability protections for entities that follow enhanced workplace-safety guidelines.

A sticking point for negotiators has been aid to state and local governments as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated government revenues. The Problem Solvers proposed $500 billion in aid to states and localities — less than the $900 billion that Democrats had adopted in the HEROES Act in May. 

Michigan state officials have warned of impending cuts to public safety, education and health care services at the local and state levels if the federal government doesn't provide additional direct assistance.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote this week that revenues in Michigan are estimated to drop by $2.47 billion in fiscal year 2021 alone. 

"The president should work with Congress on a stimulus bill that includes $500 billion in flexible aid to states so they can continue their pandemic response efforts and avoid drastic cuts to services that will only worsen the economic slowdown and prolong the recovery," Whitmer wrote in a CNN essay

Schools badly need added funding to respond to the crisis, and limited supplemental unemployment is warranted, Mitchell said. 

But $500 billion for state and local aid is a "revenue filler" or — worse — "the start of revenue-sharing on the federal level," he said. 

Mitchell supported money directed at states and large localities in the federal CARES Act last spring for addressing the virus, including material costs and paying first responders. But an estimated $100 billion in that direct aid funding remains unallocated, Mitchell noted.

"The revenue replacement issues that states have and some municipalities is one that they’ve extending the shutdown of their economy and they're losing sales tax and income tax revenue, or convention tax around Detroit, for example," Mitchell said. 

"It's a significant problem. Well, start to reopen your economy and deal with protecting your people as you should. ... We can’t continue to keep our economy and families in a straitjacket in hopes of eradicating the virus."