After negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House stalled, a coalition of rank-and-file members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. John Katko, worked to develop their own COVID-19 relief proposal — a $1.5 trillion plan — that was released on Tuesday.
The Problem Solvers Caucus wants more than $500 billion for state and local governments, another round of direct $1,200 payments to millions of Americans and $500 for each dependent, $290 billion for small businesses and $100 billion more for health care and COVID-19 testing.
The plan also includes a compromise to provide enhanced unemployment benefits to those who are out of work. There would be an additional benefit of $450 week for eight weeks, then replace lost wages of up to $600 for a five-week period. The unemployment assistance would begin in mid-October and run through January.
U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, said the plan is the product of the group's efforts over the last six to eight weeks to develop a framework for a COVID-19 relief bill. He acknowledged that it's not the caucus' role to negotiate a final agreement.
"But what we wanted to demonstrate is that it can be done," he said at a press conference outside of the Capitol on Tuesday.
While the parties differ on some elements of the competing relief proposals, one of the main points of contention is the overall price tag. House Democrats passed a bill in May that would provide more than $3 trillion to help the unemployed and send nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments. Republicans and the White House believe that's too high and want a slimmer package.
That has led to a stalemate between the two sides. But the Problem Solvers Caucus thinks they found a solution that is workable.
"When we stop talking about a final price tag and start talking about the programs that matter to people, we found that there was a lot more agreement than disagreement," said U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat who was involved in the development of the caucus's plan.
The cost of the Problem Solvers Caucus's plan is closer to the Republicans' proposals than the Democrats' bill. Along with the aid for state and local governments, stimulus checks and unemployment aid, there's also $145 billion for child care and schools, $52 billion to support the 2020 census and provide rural broadband and $400 million for election-related expenses.
Katko, R-Camillus, supports the caucus's plan. He summarized the core mission of the caucus as "to make compromise and bipartisanship cool again." The framework for a COVID-19 relief bill is reflective of that, he said.
"This should be a no-brainer, like a lot of my colleagues have said," Katko added. "But for some reason, it seems our leaders on both sides of the aisle have failed us. I ask all of them to put their swords down, stop preening for the cameras, stop using their talking points and take a look at this document. This is the type of thing we need to do to move forward."
There are critics of the plan. The House Democratic Caucus believes the $1.5 trillion proposal isn't enough. That view is shared by Dana Balter, Katko's Democratic opponent in the 24th Congressional District race.
Balter, D-Syracuse, said in a statement that the framework "fails to adequately address the immense challenges we face, and doesn't include anywhere near enough funding to help working families." She also noted that Katko voted against the House Democrats' proposal in May.
"For six months, long-term unemployment, food insecurity and housing instability have plagued central and western New Yorkers," Balter said. "Small business owners are struggling to stay afloat, and local and county governments have been forced to cut services and lay off workers because of budget shortfalls arising from the pandemic.
"He can pretend to help his constituents now, but when he actually had the opportunity to help, John Katko voted against a billion dollars in aid for local governments, against extended unemployment benefits and against hazard pay for frontline workers. Let's be clear: By voting against the relief we desperately needed, John Katko helped exacerbate this crisis."
Whether it's the House Democrats' proposal or any of the plans floated by the Republicans, congressional leaders and the White House are divided on a COVID-19 relief bill. There has been no indication of any progress, and there haven't been many discussions lately.
For the Problem Solvers Caucus, which consists of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans, they're hoping to make a statement with their framework, even if they know that it doesn't stand a chance of passing in Congress.
"If you get one message from here, it's that we're united now, we will be united going forward, we are the middle and we're pretty damn cool," Katko said.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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