Congress Approves COVID Relief, Government Funding Package

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WASHINGTON — Congress on Dec. 21 passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package that would finally provide businesses and individuals with long-awaited money and resources to vaccinate a nation grappling with a terrifying surge of COVID -19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers pinned a $1.4 trillion total spending bill and thousands of pages of other deals in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation at the close of session as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books of the year. The bill will go to President Donald Trump for signature, which is expected in the coming days.

The aid package, unveiled just this afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate approved the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House of Representatives approved the COVID-19 package by another unilateral vote, 359-53. The balance sheets were a bipartisan coda for months of partisanship and politics as lawmakers squabbled over the relief issue, a deadlock that erupted after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is less than many Democrats would have wished for.

The draft law combines means to fight the corona virus with financial relief for individuals and companies. It would introduce an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters, and money for schools, health care providers and tenants facing eviction.

The 5,593-page law — by far the longest law ever — passed Dec. 20 after months of fighting, posturing and by-election negotiations that stalled a slew of Democratic demands near the end of the congressional session. Biden was eager for a deal to bring much-needed relief to suffering people and boost the economy, even though it was less than half the size Democrats wanted in the fall.

“This deal isn’t all I want — not by a long shot,” said Jim McGovern, rules committee chairman, D-Mass., a longtime voice in the old-school liberal wing. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether or not we help small businesses and restaurants. It’s about whether or not we increase (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs. And whether or not we help those who are struggling with job losses. It’s not a difficult decision for me.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC that direct payments would hit bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid once Biden takes office, but Republicans signaled a wait-and-see attitude.

The measure would fund the government through September and pack a year’s actions on annual spending accounts into a single package that was never debated in the Senate committee or plenary.

Legislation followed a tormented path. Democrats played hardball into Election Day amid accusations they wanted to deny Trump a win that could help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands actually became more realistic after Trump’s defeat and when Biden made it clear that half a bread is better than none at all.

The final bill bore close resemblance to a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal then considered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif was little mocked.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., turned in a victory lap after preventing far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate. He said Biden’s pragmatic approach is key.

“The president-elect, suggesting we must do something now, was helpful in moving both Pelosi and Pelosi [Sen. Chuck] Schumer to a better place,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “My take on what’s next is, let’s take a look. I am happy to assess this based on the needs we face in February and March.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif., came into the Senate to cast her ballot for the bill. “The American people need relief and I want to be able to do whatever it takes to help them,” she said.

For direct payments, the law provides $600 for individuals earning up to $75,000 a year and $1,200 for couples earning up to $150,000, with payments being phased out for higher incomes . An additional payment of $600 per dependent child will be made, similar to the last round of aid payments in the spring.

“I expect to get the money out early next week — $2,400 for a family of four,” Mnuchin said. “So much needed relief just in time for the holidays.”

The $300-per-week unemployment benefit was half of the additional federal unemployment benefits granted in March under the $1.8 billion CARES Act. The direct stimulus payment of $600 was also half the March payment.

The CARES bill was credited with preventing the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans, who control the Senate, cited debt concerns as they cracked down on Democrats’ demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the despair in their constituents’ voices, hasn’t looked the small business owner in the eye on the brink of ruin,” said Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who has pushed hard for money to help his city’s transit systems, tenants, theaters and restaurants.

The advance came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle ground position that would take the top four leaders in Congress — the GOP and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate — as the basis use for their conversations. Lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back down from tough positions.

“Sometimes we felt like we were in the wild because people on all sides of the aisle wouldn’t give in to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elsa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was frankly disgusting to watch.”

Republicans have been keen to revive the $284 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which would cover a second round of PPP grants for hard-hit companies. Democrats won special repayments for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also includes $25 billion in rental subsidies, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for childcare.

The federal budget law likely included a final installment of $1.4 billion on Trump’s US-Mexico border wall as a condition of his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Senate Democrats and Republicans prevailed to use accounting maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more into legislation for domestic programs.

The bill was a motor to haul much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including a nearly 400-page water resource bill earmarking $10 billion for flood control, environmental protection and coastal protection projects for the 46th Army Corps of Engineers. Another addition would extend a number of soon-to-be-expired tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distilleries.

It would also include numerous clean energy provisions sought by Democrats, with fossil fuel stimulus favored by Republicans, $7 billion to improve access to broadband, $4 billion to others Helping nations vaccinate their populations, $14 billion for cash-strapped transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak, and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires. Food stamp benefits would be temporarily increased by 15%.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 — about half the length of the Dec. 21 behemoth.

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