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Liability reform compromise remains elusive

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As a bipartisan group of lawmakers races to unveil a $908 billion coronavirus relief proposal they hope can pass Congress, Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over how to resolve their differences on a key sticking point: liability reform.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting Monday evening, senators said that they have yet to reach a solution on the matter, but they exchanged competing proposals. The senators are expected to meet again Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.) described Monday evening’s conversation in the Senate’s Mansfield Room as a “robust exchange of ideas” but added that “there’s no consensus yet.” The Texas Republican said that he suggested removing language related to liability reform and state and local aid, another sticking point, but that his proposal “went over like a lead balloon.”

While a bipartisan cohort of senators, led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), is working to finalize language for the $908 billion package, the Senate is also facing an imminent deadline to fund the government. Congress is expected to pass a one-week continuing resolution, as it works out the details of an omnibus package. Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said that coronavirus relief should be attached to the omnibus.

As he was leaving the Senate on Monday night, McConnell told reporters: “I’m optimistic we’re going to get somewhere, but I have no report at the moment about how.”

McConnell, for months, has made clear that any coronavirus relief package will need to include liability reform to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits related to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Democrats are calling for robust funding for struggling state and local governments. The bipartisan group has yet to reach a final decision on how to address the issue.

Romney said after Monday’s meeting, “There was a good faith discussion,” and he predicted: “We may be able to get there.”

The Utah Republican said that among the issues under discussion: Looking at when injuries take place. Under Romney’s proposal, there would be a federal liability protection for coronavirus-related lawsuits based on injuries that occurred in 2020.

“During 2020, we could impose a standard on states and state you must follow the following standards such as gross negligence,” Romney said. “Or we could say, instead, we’re going to create a new defense at the state level, which is a company that’s sued or a university that‘s sued could say: We followed what was being said in Washington, we followed the guidance that was there — and by virtue of that, they would be free of liability.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who over the weekend tried to strike a deal with Cornyn on liability, said there’s been some discussion of a six-month moratorium on any litigation involving Covid-19, but added that the “question is, what happens during the six months and after?”

Manchin said the bipartisan group will begin to release section-by-section summaries Tuesday. Bill text has yet to be finalized.

But with the clock ticking, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the success of any efforts on coronavirus relief will likely come down to what House and Senate leadership does.

“If it’s all wrapped up into one bill, rank and file members will have two choices: You’re going to vote for the omnibus with this in there, or you’re going to vote against it,” Cornyn said. “I think that takes the leverage out of individual members’ hands.”


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