Congress seals deal on $900 billion Covid relief bill

WASHINGTON — After months of deadlock in Washington, Congress will implement a $900 billion pandemic relief package, finally making long-awaited money and resources available to businesses and individuals to vaccinate a nation grappling with a staggering surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

The relief package, agreed on Sunday and expected to vote in Congress Monday, would include temporary unemployment benefits of $300 a week and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, as well as a new round of subsidies earmark for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, healthcare providers and tenants facing eviction.

House and Senate leaders scheduled votes for Monday, but the final measure has yet to be finalized. Lawmakers were desperate to leave Washington and end a tumultuous year.

It came together on Sunday after months of fighting and posturing and a post-election negotiation momentum that reined in a raft of Democratic demands near the end of the congressional session. President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to bring long-awaited relief to suffering people and a boost to the economy, though it was less than half the size Democrats wanted this fall.

Biden praised the bipartisan spirit that produced what he called “just the beginning”.

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

“There’s going to be another major bailout for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in announcing the settlement for the relief bill. “It’s packed with targeted guidelines to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”

Democrats conceded it wasn’t as robust an aid package as they originally wanted – or, as they say, the country needs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised more to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“It’s a first step,” she said. “We must do more.”

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

However, delays in finalizing the deal prompted Congress to pass a one-day emergency spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at midnight on Sunday.

The final deal would be the biggest spending move to date. It combined $900 billion for Covid-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion federal funding plan and many other independent measures in tax, health, infrastructure and education. Government-wide funding would keep the government open until September.

Passage drew closer as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths mounted and evidence mounting that the economy was struggling. Legislation had been held up by months of dysfunction, posturing and malevolence. But talks turned serious in recent days, as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline to act before leaving Washington for Christmas.

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

The $300-per-week unemployment benefit was half the additional federal unemployment benefit granted under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be capped at 11 weeks instead of 16. The direct stimulus payment of $600 to most people would also be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits, where a person’s payment will gradually phase out after $75,000.

The CARES bill was credited with preventing the economy from falling off a cliff amid widespread lockdowns this spring, but Republicans, who control the Senate, cited debt concerns as they cracked down on Democrats’ demands. Republican politicians, beginning with President Donald Trump, have focused more on reopening the economy and less on taxpayer-funded measures like additional unemployment benefits.

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.

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

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.

Late decisions would limit the $300-per-week unemployment benefit — half of the additional federal unemployment benefit granted in March under the CARES Act — to 11 weeks instead of the previous 16 weeks. The $600 direct stimulus payment to most people would be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits where a person’s payment expires after $75,000.

Following the announcement, Schumer and Pelosi, D-Calif., provided additional details, including $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 government-wide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. This measure would likely provide a final installment of $1.4 billion for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall as a condition of getting his signature.

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

It would also include numerous clean energy provisions, $7 billion to improve access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their populations, $14 billion for cash-strapped transit systems, Amtrak and airports.

Democrats failed in a month-long struggle to give direct tax breaks to states and local governments, but they successfully pushed for $22 billion that would help states and local governments with Covid-19-related health spending like testing and vaccines.

The rush at the end of the session also promised relief for victims of surprisingly high medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers exit insurance company networks.

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