There is new hope that Congress will come to an agreement on a COVID-19 relief package that can pass in the lame duck session, albeit the latest proposals are vastly scaled back from those advanced by Democrats earlier this year.
The two options — a framework from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and another advanced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — do include relief aimed at theaters and live event venues.
On Thursday, McConnell said that “compromise is within reach. We know where we agree.” That followed an announcement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that they back a $908 billion proposal from a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the problem solvers caucus. That is far less than the $2.2 trillion proposal that Pelosi pushed for and the House passed in early October, but Pelosi and Schumer called on McConnell to use the bipartisan proposal as the framework for negotiations.
The proposal — outlined by a group that included Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) — would provide $288 billion to extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to small businesses. That would include support for music venues and theaters, although the exact details of which types of business would qualify for the money are still unclear.
“We have got stages, we have got basically entertainment, that are not going to make it,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) said on CNN earlier this week. “We can’t wait until February, until Joe Biden comes in, to try to save us. We can’t wait that long. They won’t make it.”
The National Association of Theatre Owners has been engaged in a “Save Your Cinema” campaign to push for federal COVID-19 relief, as have Broadway theaters and live event operators. Of course, such federal relief won’t prevent structural changes in the industry, made apparent with Warner Bros. bombshell announcement on Thursday that it would release its 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time that the movies open in theaters, breaking longtime tradition that had given exhibitors exclusive windows for a title’s first run.
The bipartisan proposal also would provide $180 billion to extend enhanced unemployment benefits through April. Another $160 billion would go to states and cities to make up for budget shortfalls. Another provision would provide some liability protection for businesses, although those details also are still be worked out.
A proposal advanced by Senate Republicans is a slimmer package of $500 million, one that McConnell has favored. That package would extend unemployment assistance to the end of January. It also would provide a second round of PPP loans, at a cost of $258 billion, with some new restrictions to try to prevent larger businesses from obtaining the money. It also would provide $15 billion for a grant program for shuttered live venues and theaters that have experienced significant losses.
McConnell has been steadfast in limiting a new COVID-19 package to the Republican bill, but there were signs of compromise on Thursday. Trump told reporters that “I want it to happen, and I believe that they’re getting very close to a deal.” McConnell also spoke by phone to Pelosi “about their shared commitment to completing an omnibus and COVID relief as soon as possible,” according to Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill.