Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has pushed back on including funding for a new FBI headquarters in the $1tn coronavirus relief package put forward by Republicans, after suggestions that the provision had been added to help Donald Trump’s downtown Washington hotel.
“I am opposed to non-germane amendments” to the proposal, including funding for the FBI building, Mr McConnell said after a meeting with Senate Republicans and White House officials on Tuesday.
Mr McConnell was not the first Republican senator to express scepticism about the White House’s push to include $1.75bn for a new FBI headquarters in downtown Washington — ensuring that the bureau remains in the city and preventing the existing space from being sold to a commercial developer.
Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, told CNN he found the inclusion of the FBI provision “pretty strange”, while Lindsey Graham, another Trump ally, told reporters that the measure made “no sense”.
Democrats have routinely pointed out that Mr Trump’s flagship Washington hotel is nearby.
Other aspects of the proposal have drawn criticism, including its size. “The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt”, said Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump also expressed reservations about certain parts of the proposal, which Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have been negotiating on his behalf.
Asked at a news conference if there were certain aspects of legislation he disagreed with, Mr Trump replied: “There are actually and we'll be talking about it. There are also things that I very much support.”
He said the Republican bill was “sort of semi-irrelevant”.
“The Democrats come with their needs and asks, and the Republicans go with theirs, so we’ll be discussing it,” he said.
Republican senators, the White House and Democratic congressional leaders are scrambling to agree a new relief package, as some benefits from the last stimulus package are set to expire at the end of this week.
Mr Mnuchin and Mr Meadows were both on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to hash out an agreement, one day after Republicans announced their opening offer.
Their $1tn bill would see enhanced unemployment benefits cut from $600 a week to $200 a week, eventually tying them to workers’ previous salaries, and provide more funding for Congress’s small-business rescue programme.
Democrats have criticised the proposal, which does not contain any funding for state and local governments — one of House Democrats’ key demands. They passed their own $3tn follow-up relief bill in June, which Republicans declared dead on arrival in the Senate.
“Unfortunately, we’re pretty far apart right now,” Chuck Schumer, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate told CBS on Tuesday morning, adding that he was still “optimistic we could have a good solution at the end”.
He and other Democrats have derided the proposal by Republicans as being a bailout for big corporations that does not do enough for ordinary Americans.
“Amazingly it has all these corporate benefits,” Mr Schumer said. “No money for food stamps but a deduction for a three-martini lunch for a big businessman. Big cushion for defence contractors, no cushion for people who have been kicked out of their house. And to boot . . . President Trump wants the FBI headquarters built near his hotel so no new competing hotel can come in, $2bn for that.”
Mr McConnell told CNBC on Tuesday that Republicans would refuse to negotiate over a provision in the bill that provides liability protections to US businesses, schools and charities operating during the virus.
“We’re not negotiating over liability protections,” he said. He also defended the decision by Republicans to cut enhanced unemployment benefits, which he said involved “the principle of not paying your neighbour more to stay home than you’re making to go back to work”.
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