Reporter’s Notebook: As Congress mulls coronavirus stimulus, prepare for ‘phases’


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The House and Senate had not even completed approval of the third phase of the coronavirus legislative response late last month when lawmakers started jockeying for a phase four bill.

The components of phase four are anybody’s guess. It’s likely to clock in at $2 trillion or more, with more money to assist health care providers, along with money for tests, treatment and care. Democrats may insist on vote-by-mail provisions for the November elections.

This came on the heels of Tuesday’s Petri dish primary in Wisconsin. There was chatter about infrastructure – maybe even $1-2 trillion right there by itself. But infrastructure will likely have to wait for the phase six or seven bill.

You heard that right. Phase six or seven. Imagine the cost of all of this.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her members will assemble and vote on another coronavirus measure before the end of the month.

So, what’s likely to wind up in the phase four bill? It’s hard to say. And, in order to understand what’s needed in phase four, observe the political wrestling with the coronavirus phase 3.5 package.


Congress allocated $350 billion for small business loans in the phase three measure in late March. But Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin came to lawmakers, begging for a quick infusion of another $251 billion for small businesses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled the Senate would aim to advance that plan by unanimous consent in a brief session Thursday. That meant McConnell would lug the additional funding across the finish line with a skeleton crew on board – so long as there were no objections.

But Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have been calling for a way to direct about half of that money to “community-based financial institutions that serve farmers, family, women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses and nonprofits in rural, tribal, suburban and urban communities across our country, and improvements to ensure all eligible small businesses can access this critical funding and are not turned away by banks.” They also requested more funding for health care, emergency food aid and assistance to states to cope with the crisis.

Just a few days ago, both McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asserted lawmakers needed to wait to see how phase three did and then develop another package. But it’s become evident there’s need to bolster the small-business component at least.

“It is quickly becoming clear that Congress will need to provide more funding or this crucial program may run dry,” McConnell said. “That cannot happen. Nearly 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in just the last two weeks. This is already a record-shattering tragedy and every day counts.”

Certainly, Pelosi and Schumer have wanted the items they demanded. But, politics is all about projecting image and shoring up the base. Even in the time of coronavirus, congressional leaders often have issued public statements to the media to assure rank-and-file members they weren’t yielding or giving up the farm. Even if these were the Democrats’ demands now, they may not get them immediately because the crisis has been so grave. But, they could extract a promise that if those issues aren’t addressed in the phase 3.5 bill, they will be there in the phase four or five measure.

That’s the way the game is played.


Pelosi asserted the House will return to Washington, in some form, to approve the phase four legislation. However, from an operational standpoint, concerns have remained about social distancing and whether it’s in the nation’s health interest to drag hundreds of lawmakers back to Capitol Hill to vote. And, that’s precisely why the House, or the Senate, for that matter, may have to wait to convene en masse – until the next measure is completely ready to go and there’s near-universal buy-in. They wouldn’t want to pull the trigger prematurely.

And, if there were such a significant challenge just to setting up the provisional, “3.5” bill, then one could only imagine what it would take to forge an agreement on phase four.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force professed a few days ago that “the virus makes the timeline.” To paraphrase Fauci, the same would be true for the phase four bill: consensus makes the timeline.

And, reaching consensus on Capitol Hill won’t be easy.

“That’s always the problem,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., when asked about next steps. “We’re different ideologies and different parts of the country.”

Pallone said increased health care funding, payments for testing and other costs would be essential in the next big measure. But, other topics remained on the table.

“I don’t think we can postpone doing infrastructure too long,” Pallone said. “We’re trying to expand broadband to underserved areas so people can get hooked up. Use telemedicine or kids can do their classrooms, virtually, online.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the top Republican on the energy and commerce panel, has asserted patience, but he noted that lawmakers may have to evaluate problems with the third coronavirus bill – and fill in gaps with legislative grout in bill four.

“We have to be a little cautious here to see what’s working,” Walden said.

When it came to specifics, Walden said he’d like to see lawmakers address surprise medical billing in phase four.

“You can imagine what [a surprise bill] might be like during this outbreak,” Walden added. “This is not the time to have people getting gouged.”

Walden also would push provisions to help small hospitals address other medical concerns. He worked in radio before getting involved in politics, and said this is a time when people need news, information and entertainment like none other. But, the Oregon Republican said newspapers have shuttered in his district since the pandemic hit, and he wondered if there’d be a way to help struggling media in rural areas provide information during coronavirus.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., has been familiar with local government, as a former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The county has accounted for 13 percent of Virginia’s population with over 1.1 million residents.

“I would hope as we move forward we could provide more assistance to state and local governments that are hemorrhaging red ink right now,” Connolly said.

He regretted that lawmakers didn’t address the Postal Service in the last coronavirus measure.

“I think that’s scandalous. The Postal Service serves every household. Every business in America. It’s required by law to provide universal service. And it’s got a workforce of 630,000 people and we just take it for granted,” Connolly said. “We’re told to shutter in place. Yet the one thing we take for granted every day is the mail gets delivered and they put themselves at risk to do so. Every day, (letter carriers) are essential workers.”

Fox News is told there’s been concern about how fast the Treasury Department could zap direct payment checks to recipients. Treasury indicated it could issue 5 million checks a week, but at that rate, people still wouldn’t be getting checks until summertime. The House Ways and Means Committee hasn’t been pleased with that timeline.

House Democrats also have been pushing for the vote-by-mail language for federal elections this fall. It is unclear if there could be a Constitutional issue with that plan. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution left the “manner” of conducting elections to the states. President Trump also has argued against this provision. Democrats could retreat on vote-by-mail now – only to demand it in a later coronavirus bill.


So, it’s hard to determine precisely what’s in the next package. Negotiations have been more challenging because people can’t bargain in the same room. Social distancing hampered development of the phase two bill.

Still, one thing is certain: Lawmakers and the administration may hold divergent views as to the makeup of the next bill, but it’s likely that consensus will make the timeline for phase four.


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