Senate scrambles to pull together another round of coronavirus relief

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Senate Republicans are struggling to devise another coronavirus package with key conservatives raising alarm about more spending while millions of unemployed Americans are hanging in the balance with their additional $600 per week in federal aid poised to expire at the end of the month.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will unveil a coronavirus bill in the coming days that will focus on reopening schools, jobs and health care. One component is already out that McConnell, R-Ky., says is a must: new liability provisions that protect businesses, schools and health care workers from coronavirus civil lawsuits.

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But there is deep dissent on the GOP side of the aisle. They are united in what they oppose — namely the House's $3 trillion coronavirus legislation – but the White House and Senate Republicans are not clear on what they want.

McConnell didn’t mention a coronavirus bill in his opening remarks Wednesday on the Senate floor and instead spoke about “cancel culture."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said GOP delays and disarray are hurting Americans and he ripped McConnell for failing to address the crisis.

"When Leader McConnell at this crucial moment can’t even mention COVID, it shows what a knot the Republicans are tied in," Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.

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The White House negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the president's acting chief of staff, made clear in private talks at the Capitol that the Trump administration opposes new spending on virus testing, housing aid or money for cash-strapped states — priorities that Democrats want.

Fox News asked Mnuchin Tuesday at the Capitol if the cost was a major factor inhibiting the passage of a bill.

“We’re going to spend what we need to spend,” Mnuchin replied.

There are concerns that McConnell can't let the bill tilt too far to the left that it infuriates President Trump and prompts a veto threat.

“They want to make sure they have something he can sign,” one source told Fox News.

McConnell's blueprint is expected to include a new round of direct payments to earners below a certain income level, similar to the $1,200 stimulus checks sent in the spring. It also will likely have some version of Trump's demand for a payroll tax holiday for workers, which many Republicans oppose.

Republicans are expected to include at least $105 billion for education, with $70 billion to help K-12 schools reopen, $30 billion for colleges and $5 billion for governors to allocate. The Trump administration wanted school money linked to reopenings, but in McConnell’s package, the money for K-12 would be split 50-50 between those that have in-person learning and those that don’t.

Republicans said they want to replace the $600 weekly federal jobless benefit with a lower amount, to prevent the unemployed from receiving more aid than they would through a normal paycheck.

A private lunch session Tuesday grew heated as key Republican senators complained about big spending.

Supporters of the package “should be ashamed of themselves,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said as he emerged from the luncheon.

Paul compared GOP backers of the spending to “Bernie bros” — referring to the young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “This is insane. … There’s no difference now between the two parties.”

As senators rose to speak about aspects of the bill, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked his colleagues, “What in the hell are we doing?”

Cruz warned if the economy is still shut down come November, Joe Biden will win the White House, Democrats will control the Senate and “we’ll be meeting in a much smaller lunchroom,” according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.

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Sen. Rick Scott of Florida left saying it’s wrong to “bail out” cash-strapped states.

“Florida taxpayers are not going to pay for New York’s expenses,” he said.

The House already passed a $3 trillion response – the most expensive in history — two months ago that Republicans panned as too expensive and unnecessary. Democrats have been pressuring Senate Republicans to act, while McConnell initially wanted to pause to see if new legislation would be needed.

After the better-than-expected June jobs report, some GOP senators expressed skepticism about re-upping the unemployment benefits and certainly not tacking on another round of direct payments. But even Meadows conceded Tuesday that the end of the month created a deadline for the talks because of the unemployment insurance conundrum.

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That’s prompted some Senate Republicans to float the idea of a short-term extension of unemployment insurance into August to serve as a bridge. That would prevent a lapse in that aid.

Republicans are now concerned about a potentially bad jobs report for July – especially if negotiations slip into August without a bill in place. Rough jobs numbers would jolt the discussions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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