The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There’s a ray of hope the Senate could at last secure bipartisan pandemic aid

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and a bipartisan congressional group on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and a bipartisan congressional group on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

THE POLITICAL season has moved into overtime, for reasons both understandable (the need for twin Georgia Senate runoffs) and unfathomable (President Trump’s destabilizing and dishonest refusal to concede his defeat). Meanwhile, the country needs governing. Most urgently, it needs federal legislation to support the troubled U.S. economy, badly damaged by the initial wave of the coronavirus and clouded by the necessary public health responses to a renewed surge of infections. Helping businesses and workers suffering through no fault of their own was a bipartisan cause when the pandemic broke out nine months ago, and it must be again — but in recent months, election-year discord has reigned.

Until now, perhaps. The ray of hope came Tuesday in the form of a $908 billion proposal from a bipartisan group of nine senators and representatives, including Virginia’s Sen. Mark R. Warner (D). The package would address crucial areas, including a four-month extension of $300-per-week unemployment benefits (total cost: $180 billion); another round of aid to small businesses ($288 billion); funds for state, local and tribal governments ($160 billion); schools ($82 billion); health care and vaccines ($51 billion combined). One can quibble about the total amount of the bill, which seems calculated to placate Republicans averse to exceeding the $1 trillion mark, even if a higher figure would probably do more good, as Democrats have maintained.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The plan also consists not of entirely new money but would repurpose unspent resources previously authorized in the initial Cares Act enacted last March, a key demand of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Some $455 billion came available when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — unwisely in our view — ended Cares Act-backed Federal Reserve credit-support programs. Still, that is a fait accompli in which the Fed has acquiesced, so there’s little point relitigating that matter if it stands in the way of a bill. Congress may as well put that cash to good use, and in the short run directing aid to businesses and individuals may stimulate the economy more than backstopping financial markets that are functioning well for now.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the proposal is its omission of another round of direct payments to households, though this is defensible given its inclusion of $26 billion in additional nutritional aid for low-income families. The main point is for Congress to be generous with what aid it does give and to target it where it’s most needed. Imperfect as it is, the bipartisan proposal merits support both in substantive terms and political ones. Substantively, it is better — much better — than nothing, which is what the 10 million who remain jobless, and the 26 million facing food insecurity, are getting now. Politically, it shows the way to yes for the negotiators, Mr. Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and puts pressure on them to get there.

Things might have been easier if Ms. Pelosi had shown more flexibility before the election; they’d be easier now if Mr. McConnell would budge from his maximum of $500 billion and if Mr. Trump would press for legislation instead of ranting about vote fraud. Cooler heads must prevail lest eight months of hard-won economic progress be allowed to unravel.

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