Democratic leaders swung behind a bipartisan Covid-19 relief effort today, cutting their demands for a US$2 trillion-plus measure by more than half.
They have done so in hopes of breaking a months-long logjam and delivering much-sought aid as a coda to a tempestuous congressional session.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer of New York made the announcement in a joint statement.
It was aimed at budging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, who so far has been unwilling to abandon a US$550 billion Senate GOP plan that has failed twice.
The Democrats embraced a US$908b approach from moderate Senators Joe Manchin, D, and Susan Collins, R, among others.
It would establish a US$300 per week jobless benefit, send US$160b to help state and local governments, boost schools and universities, revive popular "paycheque protection" subsidies for businesses, and bail out transit systems and airlines.
"In the spirit of compromise we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by Senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations," Pelosi and Schumer said. They said they would try to build upon the approach, which has support in the House from a bipartisan "problem solvers" coalition.
The new plan includes a liability shield for businesses and other organisations that have reopened their doors during the pandemic. It's the first time Pelosi and Schumer have shown a willingness to consider the idea.
McConnell had dismissed the bipartisan offer yesterday, instead aiming to rally Republicans around the US$550b GOP proposal.
President-elect Joe Biden is calling upon lawmakers to pass a relief bill now, with more aid to come next year.
It's unclear whether the flurry of activity will lead to progress. Time is running out on Congress' lame-duck session and Donald Trump's presidency, many Republicans won't even acknowledge that Trump has lost the election and good faith between the two parties is in short supply.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a split-the-difference solution to the protracted impasse, hoping to speed overdue help to a hurting nation before Congress adjourns for the holidays. It was a sign that some lawmakers reluctant to adjourn for the year without approving some pandemic aid.
Centrists such as Manchin and Collins hope to exert greater influence in a closely divided Congress during the incoming Biden administration.
Their proposal includes US$228b to extend and upgrade "paycheque protection" subsidies for businesses for a second round of relief to hard-hit businesses such as restaurants. It would revive a special jobless benefit, but at a reduced level of US$300 per week rather than the US$600 benefit enacted in March. State and local governments would receive US$160 billion.
There's also US$45 billion for transportation, including aid to transit systems and Amtrak; US$82 billion to reopen schools and universities; and money for vaccines and health care providers, as well as for food stamps, rental assistance and the Postal Service.
The new effort follows a split-decision election that delivered the White House to Democrats and gave Republicans down-ballot success.
At less than US$1t, it is less costly than a proposal from McConnell mid-year. He later abandoned that effort for a considerably less costly measure that failed to advance.
Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin struggled over a relief bill for weeks before the November election, discussing legislation of up to US$2t. Senate GOP conservatives opposed their efforts and Pelosi refused to yield on key points.
The bipartisan compromise is virtually free of detail so far, but includes a McConnell priority: a temporary shield against Covid-19-related lawsuits against businesses and other organisations that have reopened despite the pandemic.
His warnings of a wave of destructive suits hasn't been borne out, and the provision is sure to drew opposition from the trial lawyers' lobby, which retains considerable influence with Democratic leaders.