The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Congress Deliberates over Additional Coronavirus-Relief Measures

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin exits after testifying before the House Small Business Committee at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 17, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Reuters)

On the menu today: Senate Republicans are close to unveiling their first draft of a new coronavirus-relief bill, we have a little more good news on the coronavirus-vaccine front, and a handful of Catholic churches across the U.S. are facing a sudden increase in vandalism and arson.

Senate GOP Prepares to Reveal a Draft Stimulus Bill

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Republicans in Congress were “close to revolt” over the prospect of another expensive stimulus bill. Two days later, outlets are reporting that the Senate GOP is nearing an agreement on a bill to spend an additional $1 trillion, but there still seems to be plenty of division within the caucus over some of the specifics.

Yesterday evening, top GOP leaders in Congress met with President Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin to iron out differences between Senate Republicans’ draft proposal and the policy goals articulated by the White House. Two items up for debate were the inclusion of a payroll-tax cut, which Trump has pushed for, and funding to continue COVID-19 testing.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the GOP plan is likely to include $16 billion for increased coronavirus testing, which the White House had initially opposed. It also would send more than $100 billion to schools, and some of that funding would be available only to grade schools and high schools that aim to open for in-person classroom teaching in the fall.

These negotiations are taking place as the additional unemployment benefits offered by an earlier stimulus package are set to expire on July 31. Some Republicans have suggested temporarily extending those benefits while they continue to negotiate a larger spending bill; others propose lowering the rate of the benefit for everyone before requiring states to scale the payment amount based on an individual’s previous income.

According to Mnuchin, the three days of negotiation between the administration and Republicans in Congress have borne fruit; he said they’re now “completely on the same page” about the bill, which likely will offer to spend about $1 trillion in total. Even so, it isn’t clear where they landed on the payroll-tax cut or the question of how to resolve expiring unemployment benefits in the interim.

Some conservative Republican senators, meanwhile, say they won’t support the legislation if it spends too much money on line items they oppose. The Times has reported, for instance, that conservative lawmakers would like to reduce the unemployment benefits or allow them to expire, arguing that they discourage Americans from returning to work — as the benefits are higher than some workers are able to earn — and increase the already sky-high federal debt.

Here’s more from the Journal on the splits between Republicans in the Senate:

“There needs to be a federal benefit continued, but it needs to be readjusted because it’s creating a disincentive to go back to work,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who noted that one idea under discussion is to lower the benefit to 70% of the current $600 weekly federal supplement.

A University of Chicago study found 68% of unemployed workers who are eligible for benefits receive more in jobless payments than their lost earnings, with the median payment 34% more than their former weekly paychecks. . . .

Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) said that the Republican plan would include his legislation giving state and local governments more flexibility in using the $150 billion in aid the federal government has already approved. Democrats have sought $1 trillion in new state and local aid.

Senior Senate Republicans acknowledged the debates still being waged among their ranks, and they said that their proposal wouldn’t be the final word.

“This is just the starting place,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Senate GOP leadership. “You’ve got to give everybody a chance to express their views and we’re getting a lot of different views on all aspects of it.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) is among the Republican lawmakers who have said they would oppose any legislation that goes beyond tweaking the roughly $3 trillion in assistance Congress has already approved.

“We shouldn’t be talking at all about additional authorized spending,” he said.

And remember: All of this back-and-forth within the GOP is taking place before Republicans even sit down to the table with Democrats, who, for one thing, want to extend the unemployment payments at their current level through January. Most congressional Democrats back a massive spending bill that Democrats in the House passed in May, which would spend another $3.5 trillion.

But here’s one proposal on which there’s a bit of bipartisan agreement: The GOP bill likely will conclude a policy offered by Republican senator John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio that would restrict states’ ability to tax Americans working remotely somewhere other than their home state as a result of the pandemic.

A Little More Good News While Waiting for a Vaccine

Just a few days ago, we got news that an early trial of one of the new potential COVID-19 vaccines had been going well, according to news out of a human trial of Oxford University’s vaccine candidate, developed in collaboration with AstraZeneca. The trial vaccine caused a strong immune response in “almost everybody,” one of the medical directors reported, noting that it triggers “both arms of the immune system.”

Today, there’s news that the U.S. has made a deal with drug company Pfizer and biotechnology firm BioNTech, offering nearly $2 billion to secure 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine they’re developing. The vaccine would be provided to Americans free of charge, and the deal allows the U.S. government to obtain another 500 million doses in addition to the initial 100 million, if needed. The vaccine candidate has been tested only in human trials with small groups of people, but it has shown good results so far and it’ll be tested in much larger groups soon.

This isn’t the first deal that the U.S. has struck to secure doses of vaccines from developers, although it is the most expensive. We’ve already got one with Oxford University and AstraZeneca for their vaccine, spending $1.2 billion to secure a minimum of 300 million doses. Another deal funds Novavax Inc. to conduct clinical studies with its vaccine and, if it’s successful, to produce doses at a high level.

Here’s some more detail on where things stand with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine:

If one of the vaccines proves safe and effective in a large phase three trial and receives regulatory approval, HHS said Pfizer will begin to deliver doses to locations across the U.S. at the government’s direction. The vaccine would then be made available to Americans “at no cost,” HHS said. It’s unclear who the first doses of the potential vaccine would go to and how that decision would be made.

The companies previously said they expect to begin a large trial with up to 30,000 participants later this month, if they receive regulatory approval. . . .

The companies announced earlier this month preliminary data for vaccine candidate BNT162b1, the most advanced of their four potential vaccines. Researchers said the early-stage clinical trial showed the BNT162b1 vaccine produced some neutralizing antibodies, which researchers believe is necessary to build immunity to the virus.

In a press release, HHS secretary Alex Azar explained the strategy: “Through Operation Warp Speed, we are assembling a portfolio of vaccines to increase the odds that the American people will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year.” Here’s hoping.

Catholic Churches in the U.S. Deal with Vandalism and Arson

In the Wall Street Journal, Francis Rocca reports on attacks at more than half a dozen Catholic churches over the last few weeks, vandalism that has included decapitating or otherwise harming statues of Jesus and Mary and painting Satanic symbols on church walls. There has also been an instance of arson:

The most violent incident was at Queen of Peace Church in Ocala, Fla., about 75 miles northwest of Orlando. Police say a man set fire to the church on July 11 while several parishioners were inside preparing for morning Mass.

“This white van came towards me, did a U-turn, jumped the pavement and crashed into, broke into the two front doors of the church. He’d gotten inside the narthex, put ten gallons of gasoline on the floor, set it on fire and came out. And I was face to face with him like this. And he jumped into his car and off he sped,” said the Rev. Patrick J. O’Doherty, the pastor, in a YouTube video posted on the parish website.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said police had arrested Steven Anthony Shields, 24 years old, and charged him with attempted second-degree murder and arson, among other felonies, and were holding him in the county jail without bond.

Let’s pray this trend dies out as quickly as it started. Widespread vandalism of places of worship is the last thing this country needs.

ADDENDUM: Baseball is finally back! Several months later than expected, Major League Baseball finally has its Opening Day, and I can’t wait to watch my Yankees open the season against the Washington Nationals. It promises to be a strange, shortened season, but I’m grateful to have baseball this summer nonetheless.

It’s been great filling in for Jim this week — see you all next time.

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