WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Republicans underscored the need for tax cuts and business liability protections in any new coronavirus legislation on Tuesday, while blocking a Democratic attempt to require transparency for a $650 billion-plus program for struggling small businesses.
Republican President Donald Trump outlined his own wish list of policies for Congress to consider, including payroll tax cuts and a business expense deduction for restaurant meals and entertainment, as Republicans and Democrats sparred over the next round of legislation to help the United States combat the coronavirus crisis.
“The elimination of Sanctuary Cities, Payroll Taxes, and perhaps Capital Gains Taxes, must be put on the table,” Trump wrote in a tweet.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell underscored his demand that any new bill protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, but told reporters that Republicans are working on a “narrowly crafted” measure that would not protect companies guilty of “gross negligence.”
While Senate Democrats tried unsuccessfully to push through a new bill requiring public disclosure for relief programs for small businesses, McConnell emphasized the need for a “pause” in new coronavirus legislation so Congress can evaluate the effects of the nearly $3 trillion in funding it has already allocated.
McConnell called the Republican-controlled Senate back into session this week for an agenda focused largely on Trump’s nominees for senior posts, including national intelligence director and special inspector general for a coronavirus relief fund. Democrats criticized the agenda for its lack of focus on the national public health emergency.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives remained in recess this week to avoid possible health risks posed by the novel coronavirus. House majority leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he would not call the House back until another coronavirus relief bill is ready, possibly next week.
One senior Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s health committee, urged congressional leaders to change their minds and accept an offer from the Trump administration for rapid coronavirus testing kits for Congress, especially before lawmakers return home.
Otherwise, Alexander told reporters, “Members of Congress would represent sort of a virus-spreading machine, coming in here to a coronavirus hotspot and then going home.”
Senators held a morning confirmation hearing for U.S. Representative John Ratcliffe, Trump’s nominee for national intelligence director.
Brian Miller, a White House lawyer, later appeared at a hearing to consider his nomination to oversee a $500 billion fund to rescue larger businesses hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats raised doubts about both nominees and their independence from Trump.
Miller, who has also worked as an inspector general for the General Services Administration, the government agency responsible for contracting, pledged to be independent if confirmed in the new post.
“This is going to be a very challenging and demanding position, there is no question about that. I will go where the facts lead. There may be facts that the president and the administration don’t like, but I will state them anyway,” Miller said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Democratic presidential candidate, was pleased when Miller told her he would consider investigating as waste or abuse a hypothetical case she described in which a giant corporation gets aid from the government and then proceeds to lay off workers.
But other Democrats were not so happy with Miller’s sidestepping of their questions about Trump’s ousting of several inspectors general at other agencies.
Miller wore a mask while testifying, as did the chairman of the panel, Republican Senator Mike Crapo. The hearing was held in a cavernous room with large distances between lawmakers. Several senators asked their questions via video link.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)