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Mitch McConnell Insists On Liability Protections For Businesses During The Pandemic


On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have mostly worked together in recent weeks to approve nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus aid. Now Congress is retreating into its bipartisan corners. Key Republicans are demanding new liability protections for businesses during the pandemic, while Democrats say the focus must be on aid for state and local governments. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been fine with the trillions of dollars Congress has spent to address coronavirus, but now he's tapping the brakes. McConnell wants any new relief packages to also protect businesses from legal action during the pandemic. Here's McConnell on the "Guy Benson Show" on Fox News Talk.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I want to make sure that we protect the people we've already sent assistance to who are going to be set up for an avalanche of lawsuits if we don't act.

GRISALES: Recently, President Trump said it's a key part of reopening the economy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had tried to take liability away from these companies. We just don't want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong.

GRISALES: The Senate returns next week, and this issue is now colliding with Democratic demands to fund state and local governments. Trump and McConnell have been critical of states looking for more federal help, and McConnell said perhaps they should consider bankruptcy. Here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.


CHUCK SCHUMER: What leader McConnell is suggesting would lead to hundreds of thousands - hundreds of thousands - of vital state and local government employees - nurses and health workers, correctional officers, sanitation workers, so many others - being fired or furloughed.

GRISALES: McConnell has also raised concerns about new debt. But even some experts that traditionally worry about debt say now is the time to spend on state and local governments. Maya MacGuineas is president of the bipartisan nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says the country saw a run on bad debt during positive economic times.

MAYA MACGUINEAS: But that leads into this moment, which is exactly when you should be borrowing as a country, and we do need to. So worrying so much about the debt now that we don't put in place the measure that we have to stabilize the economy would actually do more damage.

GRISALES: Many states end their fiscal year June 30 and could soon slash their biggest expenses - education, public health, corrections and public safety.

Here's Shelby Kerns with the National Association of State and Budget Officers.

SHELBY KERNS: When you have to cut that much money when you're facing such a significant decline, you really have to go where the money is.

GRISALES: Democrats who are pushing for a significant infusion of cash for states were also saying they want worker protections not new legal shields for their employers. But McConnell is holding firm. Here he is on Fox News.


MCCONNELL: What I'm saying is we have a red line on liability. It won't pass the Senate without it.

GRISALES: Lee Saunders, president of the country's largest union of public employees, is sounding the alarm if Congress doesn't get a deal. On a recent call with Democratic leaders, he said his group, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, can provide critical services with the aid.


LEE SAUNDERS: It means the streets and roads get fixed. It means clean water comes out of the tap. And it means when you call 911, the ambulance shows up on time.

GRISALES: Congressional Democrats and Republicans say there will be more aid, but that's as far as the agreements go for now.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOFT GLAS' "BASIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.