An explosion of coronavirus cases has led to new restrictions on businesses and could put new pressure on Congress to pass a coronavirus stimulus bill before lawmakers go home for the year, one lawmaker said Wednesday.



Josh Gottheimer wearing a suit and tie: Friday, March 20, 2020 - Congressman Josh Gottheimer at a press update held by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy holds press update at Bergen Community College, Moses Center, after the opening of New Jersey's First COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site at the college in the state's hardest hit county with the coronavirus.


© Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/T…
Friday, March 20, 2020 – Congressman Josh Gottheimer at a press update held by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy holds press update at Bergen Community College, Moses Center, after the opening of New Jersey’s First COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site at the college in the state’s hardest hit county with the coronavirus.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus whose bipartisan attempts at a solution went nowhere on Capitol Hill, said the time fo Congress to act is now.

“We’re all out of patience because the country is out of patience,” Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday. “And rightfully so. People have had it.”

New Jersey has reported 263,495 total positive tests during the eight-month outbreak. The seven-day average for new positive tests increased Wednesday to 2,655, a 50% increase from a week earlier and 237% higher than a month ago.

That has led to new restrictions on bars and restaurants, a ban at seating at indoor bars, and a temporary end to all indoor interstate organized sports up to the high school level starting on Thursday.

As cases continue to increase, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have failed to reach an agreement on new stimulus legislation.

One of the major sticking points has been federal aid for state and local governments to help pay the salaries of police officers, health care workers, teachers and other public sector employees. Both President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have opposed the assistance and Democrats have refused to consider legislation without it.

McConnell, R-Ky., has recently dropped his opposition to helping states and localities, but reiterated Tuesday that he has no intention of spending anywhere near the $2 trillion that House Democrats and the Trump administration were discussing when their talks ended before Election Day.

There has been strong bipartisan support for small business aid, extra unemployment insurance payments and a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks, but both Democrats and Republicans have added other priorities.

Democratic lawmakers have demanded more federal help for poorer families. Gottheimer said that around 180 families a week in Bergenfield are now using the local food pantry, compared with 10 to 15 before the pandemic.

And Republicans have insisted that businesses receive immunity against lawsuits from employees and customers who become infected with COVID-19.

House Democrats twice have passed legislation that the Senate has refused to consider. Senate Republicans tried and failed to approve two bills that included the lawsuit provision and increased taxpayer subsidies for religious and other private schools.

“The bottom line is I’ve been talking to Democrats and Republicans who have made it clear they’ll get behind a package,” Gottheimer said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to get it done.”

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Senate Republicans have put the onus on Pelosi to move off her positions to get a bill passed, and Gottheimer agreed that House Democratic leaders, along with those in the GOP, may need to back down from some of their demands.

“McConnell’s going to have to move a little bit and we’re going to have to move a little bit,” Gottheimer said.

Gottheimer called it “really foolish,” “outrageous and unconscionable” that a deal couldn’t be reached before the election.

Democrats should be able to change some of their demands, Gottheimer said, because incoming President-elect Joe Biden already has indicated that he will make crushing the virus a top priority when he becomes president in January 2021, meaning the House may not have to insist in certain language in the spending bill.

“We are in a much better position because we will have a Democratic president who will take a much more muscular approach to leading on COVID,” Gottheimer said. “That’s a factor here.

In addition, he said, both houses of Congress will be up for grabs in 2022, so lawmakers may not want to return home for the holidays without bearing the gift of a new stimulus bill.

“What we have to do is get resources to people now,” he said. “We can’t wait.”

Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at jsalant@njadvancemedia.com.

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