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Lawmakers begin talks on another round of coronavirus relief for businesses

Democrats and Republicans have discussed setting aside billions to help restaurants, gyms and performance venues, though GOP concerns about spending could scuttle the effort

A sample at a coronavirus testing kiosk in Northwest Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have held early discussions about another round of coronavirus stimulus spending as they seek to blunt the fast-spreading omicron variant and its threats to public health and economic recovery.

The efforts have focused primarily on authorizing billions of dollars to help an array of businesses — including restaurants, performance venues, gyms and even minor league sports teams — that face another potential blow to their already-battered balance sheets as a result of the evolving pandemic.

In recent weeks, the talks have been led by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), according to four people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their work, which is ongoing. The duo in mid-December cobbled together the outlines of a roughly $68 billion proposal, two of the people said, which could include a mix of new spending and a repurposing of some unused cash authorized under previous packages.

Cardin and Wicker have not yet finalized the business-focused measure, according to those familiar with their work, adding that the two lawmakers have huddled with members from both parties, including Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), in an attempt to build support. They may face an uphill battle in the narrowly divided chamber, where past attempts to provide aid for restaurants and other industries have faltered amid GOP concerns about adding to the federal deficit.

But the talks nonetheless reflect the nation’s growing fears about the omicron variant that has swept across the country with devastating speed. With coronavirus cases surging to record highs — and some hospitals once again under immense strain — lawmakers have started to worry that the pandemic could unleash fresh economic havoc.

Lawmakers, business leaders begin to raise alarms about dwindling federal aid, as omicron cases rise across U.S.

For months, the United States appeared to be turning a corner. Coronavirus vaccines and boosters were readily available, new treatments were coming on the market and the economy showed signs of improvement, posting at one point in November the fewest number of new claims for unemployment benefits since the late 1960s. The progress came as a result of considerable investment from Congress, where lawmakers have spent nearly $6 trillion on relief since the start of the pandemic, including a roughly $1.9 trillion package known as the American Rescue Plan that counted as President Biden’s first legislative achievement.

But those hard-fought gains have appeared at risk as businesses and schools once again close and Americans hunker down against a highly transmissible variant of the virus. More than 15,000 flights have been canceled since Christmas Eve, with an additional 3,000 on Monday alone, as the pandemic continues to hurt the workers and businesses upon which the economy depends.

The White House has maintained that it has the resources to respond to any immediate economic disruption caused by the omicron wave. That includes money for public health as part of the American Rescue Plan, as well as billions of dollars provided under the law for states to use as needed, which Biden touted during an event at the White House on Tuesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the passage of new coronavirus legislation on March 10. (Video: Reuters)

“We’re going to see, as you all have been hearing, a continued rise in cases. Omicron is very transmissible,” the president warned.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to additional spending that could help turn the tide, including $130 billion that Washington sent to states to try to mitigate the spread of the virus in schools. The money is significant, since school closures could add to the burden on parents, who might be forced to take time off work as a result.

But Psaki otherwise declined to say the White House has engaged in talks with Democrats and Republicans about another tranche of relief targeting businesses, including restaurants, emphasizing only that the Biden administration is in “constant discussions” with lawmakers.

A record 4.5 million Americans quit or changed jobs in November

In the meantime, other federal coronavirus stimulus programs have run out of money or reached the end of their planned lives, raising fresh concerns on Capitol Hill that more aid might be needed.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, has started evaluating existing aid and “potentially the need for additional resources for vaccines, therapeutics, testing and other needs,” according to a committee aide. The inquiry comes weeks after the Biden administration announced a plan to distribute half a billion free at-home tests.

In the House, Democrats on the chamber’s spending panel have held general talks about adding such money, if it is required, to a measure that would fund the government through September, according to an aide familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe early deliberations.

The current spending agreement is set to expire Feb. 18, at which point lawmakers must adopt another short-term deal, finalize a package of bills that keeps the government operational or risk a federal shutdown. That deadline gives lawmakers an opportunity to respond to the omicron variant and other recent crises, including a deadly tornado outbreak in Kentucky, which prompted bipartisan calls for disaster relief.

In a letter last month, Reps. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) asked House and Senate leaders to consider a “targeted relief package,” citing the specific needs of small businesses including restaurants, gyms and live venues. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), meanwhile, has reiterated her requests for Congress to replenish money in a restaurant-specific fund that ran dry months earlier as the hospitality industry braces for another major disruption.

In recent days, many Democrats have seized on the worsening public health crisis to push Congress to revive an expired program that provided monthly payments to more than 35 million families. The proposal to reauthorize the expanded advance child tax credit remains trapped in a broader war between Democrats and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) over the fate of the stalled $2 trillion Build Back Better Act.

“Cutting child poverty in the United States in half is a major accomplishment, and I hope we don’t abandon it,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip, told reporters Tuesday.

Other lawmakers have trained their sights on public health spending measures: About 80 House and Senate Democrats asked congressional leaders at the end of last year to approve at least $17 billion to help deliver more coronavirus vaccines globally, arguing that not doing so could enable variants even more worrisome than omicron.

“No investment in the fight against covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible,” the coalition wrote.

Many Republicans have long maintained that additional aid is unnecessary. GOP lawmakers voted unanimously against the American Rescue Plan last spring, calling much of its spending wasteful. Months later, their opposition threatens to complicate any effort to advance even a smaller, targeted stimulus measure through the narrowly divided Senate.

Republicans fired their latest political salvo on Monday, criticizing the Biden administration for failing to make quick use of existing spending to ensure the widespread availability of coronavirus testing.

Citing more than $80 billion set aside for the Department of Health and Human Services, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a letter to the agency that it is “unclear to us why we are facing such dire circumstances now.”

“It does not appear to be because of lack of funding, but a more fundamental lack of strategy and a failure to anticipate future testing needs by the administration,” they wrote.