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Senate Democrats Block GOP's $300 Billion Pandemic Relief Bill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Congress is once again stuck in a partisan standstill over a new round of coronavirus aid. Today Senate Democrats blocked a $300 billion COVID-19 relief bill written by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democrats for standing in the way of the measure by refusing to accept a dollar figure lower than the one they had proposed.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: While working families have suffered and waited and wondered whether Washington Democrats really care more about hurting President Trump than helping them through this crisis.

CHANG: But Democrats say more money is needed. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following the standoff and joins us now.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: All right. So we have seen Congress fighting for months over different versions of coronavirus relief. Now, can you just remind us, what was in this particular bill? And why were Democrats so opposed to it?

SNELL: So this bill came together just at the beginning of this week. And it included more money for the Popular Paycheck Protection small business loans, a scaled-back $300 a week version of the federal unemployment benefits that ran out in July. Some states are still sending out payments through an executive order from President Trump, but this would be Congress enacting $300 for people across the country. It also had money for schools and the Postal Service and liability lawsuit protection for businesses, schools and health care providers who are worried about being sued over coronavirus-related issues.

Democrats say that's just not enough. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it emaciated, and this is how she described it to reporters today.

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NANCY PELOSI: Let's not have tokenism when we have a major disaster. Let's not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem.

SNELL: So Democrats are basically saying that they passed $3.2 trillion back in May. And they have throughout these negotiations with Republicans - particularly with the White House - they've said that they would accept $2 trillion. So they've come down quite a bit. And Republicans have been unwilling to come up much to meet them.

CHANG: Well, Republicans have been saying that they want to do smaller targeted coronavirus relief. So why do Democrats have a problem with that approach?

SNELL: Well, as with a lot of things in Congress, there are a lot of, you know, kind of intricate dynamics at play. First, Democrats say a piecemeal approach just won't work. You know, they're saying the whole economy is hurting and that testing is necessary. Treatment options are needed. Vaccine funding is important, and so is election security support and money for the Postal Service. So basically, they're saying you can't pick and choose what needs to be paid for right now.

You know, and there are also concerns that there's just not enough time or political will to do another bill before the election in November. You know, you've covered Congress. You understand how this all works.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes.

SNELL: The political atmosphere in Washington is just particularly toxic right now. You know, there are lots of examples of how bad things are. But I think one thing that's really notable to me is that the relationship between the president and Speaker Pelosi has kind of totally fallen apart. They haven't talked to each other in nearly a year, since October of last year.

CHANG: Wow.

SNELL: Right.

CHANG: I didn't realize that.

SNELL: Yeah. And Republicans and Democrats are trillions of dollars apart in their vision for how the government should respond to this crisis. So you know how hard it can be to get a big bill through. It usually takes a lot of people working together. But, you know, both sides are saying that they're at a stage where it seems like the gulf just might be too large and too hard to build a bridge.

CHANG: The thing is coronavirus aid is not the only thing that they need to be negotiating about right now because government funding is going to run out at the end of this month. So the eternal question that I know you love to answer, Kelsey Snell, are things so toxic in D.C. between these two sides that a government shutdown might be on the horizon?

SNELL: You know, it doesn't seem that way. Democrats and Republicans agree that they want to avoid a shutdown. You know, they've publicly said - both sides said they want to extend current spending levels for a short time to avoid a spending fight ahead of the election. They're working out the details right now and smoothing over some adjustments that need to be made. But Speaker Pelosi says they'll decide on a new expiration date soon. And she also says these are totally separate conversations from the coronavirus.

CHANG: That is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.