By Jacqueline Pitts, The Bottom Line
FRANKFORT, Ky. — As the country continues to struggle with the impacts of the coronavirus, Senate Republicans rolled out a new proposal Monday that will aim to provide added relief to Americans struggling with their physical, mental, and economic well-being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, said together, a group of bills sponsored by various members of his caucus make up “the HEALS Act — health; economic assistance; liability protection; and schools.”
McConnell stressed the need for bipartisanship in the effort to provide another round of legislative relief for America that will focus on kids, jobs and healthcare.
“We have produced a tailored and targeted draft that will cut right to the heart of three distinct crises facing our country — getting kids back in school, getting workers back to work, and winning the healthcare fight against the virus,” he said.
In response to the HEALS Act rollout, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the stimulus proposal “totally inadequate.”
House Democrats approved a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package in May that was not taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate. Plenty of debate and potential changes on the HEALS Act are likely to occur in the coming weeks. Below are highlights of the initial HEALS Act proposal:
President Donald Trump, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Senate Leader McConnell seemingly are all in agreement that there should be another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for most Americans.
Eligibility for the next round of stimulus payments would be the same as provided under the CARES Act ($1,200 per adult for individuals with adjusted gross incomes of up to $75,000. The threshold for married couples is $150,000 – and they are eligible for $2,400 and $500 per child).
Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
The HEALS Act proposal also will allow small businesses the opportunity to receive a second forgivable loan as a continuation of the PPP loans from the CARES Act, but only applies to employers with fewer than 300 employees that have seen revenue decline by at least 50 percent.
The GOP plan for unemployment insurance would reduce the added federal unemployment benefit (previously $600/week) to $200 per week, while states would be tasked with providing each unemployed worker with wage replacement equal to 70 percent of their previous pay, up to a state cap. Democrats are expected to fight for the $600 weekly benefit to be renewed.
Liability protections would be included for everyone, including businesses, schools, churches, charities, and healthcare professionals, who will be protected from malpractice lawsuits, under the HEALS Act. McConnell said the goal is to encourage companies to reopen without fear of frivolous lawsuits that could result in significant costs to employers and others. Democrats are likely to push back on this proposal, as prior legislation has pressed for added protections for workers, including new workplace standards and infection-control plans.
Diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines are the primary focus in the health care portion of the bill, which also notably included protections from premium spikes for Medicare recipients.
The education portion of the HEALS Act aims to help schools and universities open safely, with more than $100 billion in dedicated funding. The bill also includes policies to help childcare providers and schools have the flexibility needed to function, according to McConnell. But a significant amount of education funding provided in the GOP proposal would be tied to reopening schools for in-person classes, language that Democrats are expected to reject.
State and Local Governments
A bill proposed in May by House Democrats pushed for an additional $1 trillion in funding aide for state and local governments. Senate Republicans did not include any added funding for state and local governments in the HEALS Act.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Incentives
The Senate Republicans added a provision in the HEALS Act incentivizing domestic companies to produce PPE, expressing concerns with the U.S.’s dependence on China for such equipment.
Access to the employment tax credit and the work opportunity tax credit are also expanded under the bill introduced Monday. Tax credits will be made available to aid employers in purchasing PPE and implementing recommended safety and health protocols in the workplace.
The HEALS Act includes a proposal aimed at protecting and strengthening the trust funds of federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security, by evaluating current operations and functionality. The language would require a Congressional report to be delivered to the Treasury in January of 2021, so that “rescue committees” could then be implemented to devise plans to shore up the solvency of the programs.