Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King joined a bipartisan group of Senate colleagues Tuesday to propose a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief package to states, businesses and unemployed Americans.

The bipartisan proposal seeks to pressure congressional leaders, as well as the White House, to end a months-long stalemate as the nationwide economy struggles and COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths soar. Existing programs are set to expire or run dry by month’s end, leaving Congress a few weeks to find common ground on a relief package and on a temporary budget deal to avoid a government shutdown.

The framework outlined Tuesday by the nine senators – four Democrats, four Republicans and King, an independent – includes $180 billion to provide $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits for four additional months. The plan also would provide $288 billion in assistance to small businesses – including $228 billion in forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program – and $160 billion for state, local and tribal governments.

The senators also proposed an additional $26 billion for food banks and nutritional programs, $25 billion for rental assistance, $82 billion for education programs, $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution, and $35 billion for health care providers on the front lines of the pandemic.

Graphic courtesy of the Office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia

“We have worked night and day through the Thanksgiving recess because we recognize that families all across America are struggling, that businesses are closing and that hospitals are overwhelmed,” Collins, a Republican who led the discussions with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said in a news conference at the U.S. Capitol. “As we deal with this second wave or third wave of this pandemic, it is absolutely essential that we pass emergency relief.”

Manchin called the proposal “a framework” aimed at moving the issue forward, adding it would be “inexcusable” for Congress to adjourn for the holidays without a relief package.

“It’s not the time for political brinkmanship,” Manchin said.

The proposal has yet to receive the endorsement of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or President Trump – the three figures key to any deal. But dozens of members of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus voiced their support on Tuesday in an attempt to show bipartisan, bicameral support for a compromise.

President-elect Joe Biden told reporters in Delaware on Tuesday that he had just heard about the proposal.

“Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief to address these urgent needs. But any package passed in a lame-duck session is likely to be, at best, just a start,” Biden said, according to The Washington Post.

COVID-19 cases are surging across the country amid the widely anticipated fall wave of the virus. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 214 new cases on Tuesday and 20 additional deaths. The new deaths, the most Maine has reported in one day, included deaths that occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Maine has received more than $7.4 billion in coronavirus-related funds since March. More than one-quarter of that money went to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program that Collins co-authored. The Republican said she was particularly pleased with the proposal for $228 billion in PPP loans given the hardships among restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses in Maine.

Maine state government also received $1.25 billion for coronavirus-related expenses as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act bill passed by Congress this spring. As of Monday, the administration of Maine Gov. Janet Mills had committed more than $1.2 billion of the $1.25 billion, with more than half flowing to Maine’s unemployment system or to businesses in the form of grants.

In a letter last week to members of Maine’s congressional delegation, Mills said continued federal support would be “critical” to maintaining the state’s coronavirus testing and vaccination network.

“We are looking straight into the eyes of a perfect storm: evaporation of the funding used for our COVID-19 testing infrastructure, diminished supply of testing materials, inadequate support for vaccine development, and inequitable distribution of the vaccine,” Mills wrote. “The continued operation of Maine’s network of COVID-19 testing locations and laboratories, currently supported in large part by CRF (Coronavirus Relief Funds) and other portions of the CARES Act, will be necessary well beyond the expiration of funding in 2020.”

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the governor was grateful to Maine’s two senators for their efforts.

“Senators Collins and King, like Congresswoman (Chellie) Pingree and Congressman (Jared) Golden, understand how important federal assistance is to supporting Maine’s efforts to combat the virus, to protecting the health of Maine people, and to charting a course for economic recovery,” Crete said. “She hopes other members of Congress will follow their lead and take action to deliver much-needed relief as soon as possible.”

At $908 billion, the proposal is one-half the $1.8 trillion package that Trump had floated in October but more than McConnell’s $500 billion proposal that Democrats quickly rejected as woefully inadequate. Pelosi had been pushing a $2.2 trillion package.

Some Democrats may be disappointed with the $300-per-week in enhanced unemployment benefits given the $600 weekly payments earlier during the pandemic. Republicans, meanwhile, secured language that would give businesses short-term liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits until states could craft their own legal language.

But the senators are not proposing another round of stimulus checks to individuals similar to the $1,200 paid out to taxpayers last spring.

During Tuesday’s news conference, King described the senators’ proposal as “a way to deal with the principle issues but not every issue.”

“This is an opportunity for the American people to have relief,” King said. “It is also a profound opportunity for this institution to show the American people that we are able to rise to the occasion … that we are able to respond in a way that is not partisan, that is not political but is simply aimed at dealing with this catastrophe that has struck the American people.”

The other senators involved in negotiations were: Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia; Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana; Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both Democrats from New Hampshire; Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is the second-ranking Democrat, participated in negotiations but was not present at Tuesday’s news conference. Durbin said during floor remarks that he supported the bill getting consideration by the full Senate despite his personal reservations about some aspects.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is a member of leadership, gave a tentative thumbs up to the idea, though he said time is running out and working against it.

“I think $900 billion would do a lot more good right now than $2 trillion will do in March,” Blunt said, according to The Associated Press. “This is an important time to step up if we can.”

Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, said “the failures of Washington as a whole, and House and Senate leadership in particular, to address the coronavirus crisis head-on has left the country appallingly unprepared for what will likely be a difficult winter.”

“While today’s framework put forward by the Problem Solvers Caucus may not totally satisfy some holdouts on both sides of the aisle, it represents a path forward for Congress to act now,” Golden said in a statement. “Struggling small businesses, workers and families, hospitals, and states and towns cannot wait until next year for help. I call on all of my colleagues to join this effort and support a bipartisan deal before Congress ends its work this month.”

Pingree, D-1st District, pledged to work for an “impactful” package without specifically endorsing the Senate proposal.

“Mainers urgently need assistance – whether they’re on unemployment, struggling to put food on the table, or in danger of losing their home,” Pingree said in a statement. “Since May, I’ve supported two comprehensive relief packages passed by the U.S. House. I am encouraged that negotiations are ongoing and I’ll be pushing for as broad and impactful a deal as possible.”

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