Congress seals agreement on $900 billion COVID relief bill


Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal Sunday on a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them.

The agreement, announced by congressional leaders, would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, health care providers, and renters facing eviction.

It came after months of battling and posturing, but the negotiating dynamic changed in Republicans’ favor after the election and as the end of the congressional session neared. President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted this fall.

Biden praised the bipartisan spirit that produced the measure, which he called “just the beginning.”

“This is a model for the challenging work ahead for our nation,” Biden said in a statement.

House leaders informed lawmakers that they would vote on the legislation on Monday, and the Senate was likely to vote on Monday, too. Lawmakers were eager to leave Washington and close out a tumultuous year.

“There will be another major rescue package for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in announcing the agreement for a relief bill that would total almost $900 billion. “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”

Democrats acknowledged it wasn’t as robust a relief package as they initially sought — or, they say, the country needs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed more to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“It is the first step,” she said. “We have to do more.”

A fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers was resolved Saturday night by the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, and conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. That breakthrough led to a final round of negotiations Sunday.

Still, delays in finalizing the agreement prompted the House to pass a one-day stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at midnight Sunday. The Senate was likely to pass the measure Sunday night as well.

The final agreement would be the largest spending measure yet. It combined $900 billion for COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure, and education. The government-wide funding would keep the government opens through September.

Passage neared as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked and evidence piled up that the economy was struggling. The legislation had been held up by months of dysfunction, posturing, and bad faith. But talks turned serious in recent days as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline of acting before leaving Washington for Christmas.

“This bill is a good bill. Tonight is a good night. But it is not the end of the story, it is not the end of the job,” Schumer told reporters. “Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what’s going on in America.”

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would also be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual’s payment began to phase out after $75,000.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff amid widespread lockdowns this spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands. Republican politicians, starting with President Donald Trump, focused more on reopening the economy and less on taxpayer-financed steps like supplemental jobless benefits.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hard-line positions.

“We put our heads down and worked around the clock for nearly a month to produce a bipartisan, bicameral bill to address the emergency needs of our country,” the bipartisan group of about a dozen lawmakers said in a statement. “Our consensus bill was the foundation of this final package.”

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover the second round of PPP grants to, especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

Late-breaking decisions would limit $300 per week bonus jobless benefits — one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act in March — to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks as before. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual’s payment begins to phase out after $75,000.

After the announcement, Schumer and Pelosi, D-Calif., announced additional details, including $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges, and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

The governmentwide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. That measure was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, including one for craft brewers, wineries, and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean energy provisions, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, Amtrak, and airports.

Democrats failed in a months-long battle to deliver direct fiscal relief to states and local governments, but they successfully pressed for $22 billion that would help states and local governments with COVID-19-related health expenses like testing and vaccines.

The end-of-session rush also promised relief for victims of shockingly steep surprise medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers drop out of insurance company networks.

U.S. congressional leaders said on Sunday they had reached an agreement on a $900 billion package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy hammered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with votes likely on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: A woman poses for photos along with the reflecting pool at the U.S. Capitol on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Here’s what is in the package, according to a summary released by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and interviews with several congressional aides who provided additional details:

Checks in the mail: The bill includes $166 billion in new direct payments of up to $600 per adult and child, for individuals making up to $75,000 a year and $1,200 for couples making up to $150,000 a year. The bill expands direct payments to mixed-status households.

More unemployment benefits: An additional $300 per week for some unemployment recipients.

A U.S. Postal Service grant: Congress agrees to convert a $10 billion loan approved in March into direct funding for USPS without requiring repayment.

Payroll loans: $284 billion for government payroll loans, including expanded eligibility for nonprofits and newspaper and TV and radio broadcasters, $15 billion for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions, and $20 billion for targeted disaster grants

Back-to-school funding: $82 billion for colleges and schools, including for heating-and-cooling system upgrades to mitigate virus transmission and reopen classrooms, and $10 billion for childcare assistance. Includes $54.3 billion for K-12 schools and $22.7 billion for higher education

Business meal write-offs. A new tax break for business meal expenses, nicknamed the “three-martini” deduction.

Ending surprise medical billing: Insured patients only need to pay in-network costs when an emergency or other issue forces them to use a medical provider who isn’t covered by their network.

Transport industry help: $45 billion for transportation aid, including $15 billion to U.S. passenger airlines for payroll assistance, $14 billion for transit systems, $10 billion for state highway funding, $2 billion for airports, $1 billion for airline contractors and $1 billion for passenger railroad Amtrak.

Rent and eviction aid: $25 billion for rent and utility payment assistance for people struggling to stay in their homes, and an extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31. States will receive a minimum of $200 million in assistance.

Vaccine distribution aid: $30 billion to support procurement and distribution of the vaccine, “ensuring it’s free and rapidly distributed to everyone,” as Schumer said.

More to fight hunger: $13 billion for food assistance, including additional funding for food banks and senior nutrition programs, college student access to the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Farm aid: Another $13 billion for direct payments, purchases, and loans to farmers and ranchers.

Expanded Pell Grants: New grants for college tuition, which would reach 500,000 new recipients.

Internet access: $7 billion to give more Americans broadband internet access, including $1.9 billion to replace telecom network equipment that poses national security risks and $3.2 billion for a new temporary benefit program to help low-income Americans get access to broadband service

Global virus alliances: $4 billion for an international vaccine alliance

Tax credits: Enhanced tax credits to encourage low-income housing construction, businesses to keep employees on payroll, employers to provide paid sick leave, and for low income workers.

Minority-owned businesses: $12 billion for minority owned and very small businesses that struggled to access earlier Payroll Protection Program financing.

What’s not in the bill: Liability protection for companies whose employees get coronavirus, which Republicans have backed for months, was not including in the final negotiations or bill; Democrats laid aside sizable funds for state and local governments in return.

A last-minute attempt by the Republican Party to limit the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending power to small businesses and local governments was also left out.

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