US Congress seals agreement on COVID relief, government funding

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December 21, 2020 9:28 AM

The agreement, announced by congressional leaders, would establish a temporary USD 300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a USD 600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans

coronavirus, covid relief, covid stimulus package, US parliamennt, US Congress, coronavirus US subsisdy for business, covid aid for americansHouse leaders informed lawmakers that they would vote on the legislation on Monday (Reuters Image)

Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal Sunday on an almost USD 1 trillion 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 USD 300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a USD 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. 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 USD 900 billion.  “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.” 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 COVID-19 relief with a USD 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 open 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 USD 300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the USD 1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct USD 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 USD 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.

Lawmakers had hoped to pass the bill this weekend and avoid the need for a stopgap spending bill, but progress slowed Saturday as Toomey pressed for the inclusion of a provision to close down the Fed’s lending facilities. Democrats and the White House said it was too broadly worded and would have tied the hands of the incoming Biden administration, but Republicans rallied to Toomey’s position.

Late-breaking decisions would limit USD 300 per week bonus jobless benefits “one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act in March” to 10 weeks instead of 16 weeks as before. The direct USD 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 USD 75,000.

After the announcement, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, announced additional details, including USD 25 billion in rental assistance, USD 15 billion for theaters and other live venues, USD 82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and USD 10 billion for child care. Still, Democrats wanted more. Pelosi, in a letter to colleagues, called the package an initial step. “In 31 days, when Joe Biden enters the White House, more help will be on the way,” Pelosi said.

The governmentwide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. That measure was likely to provide a last USD 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 USD 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.

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