Congress is approaching a $ 900 billion Covid aid bill as Friday’s deadline approaches US Congress

Congressional negotiators “approached” a $ 900 billion Covid-19 bill on Wednesday that will include $ 600 to $ 700 stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits as a Friday deadline approached, lawmakers and aides said.

Top members of the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-controlled Senate have sounded more positive than in months about a fresh response to a crisis that has killed more than 304,000 Americans and put millions out of work.

The Republicans have been looking for a stimulus package with a much lower price tag than what the Democrats want for months. The two sides appear to have found common ground in a $ 908 billion emergency package – more than $ 1 trillion less than the first stimulus package.

Their assistants struggled to draft legislative language on Wednesday as the number of Covid-19 infections soared to new heights even as the United States begins to vaccinate people. The US economy is showing signs of weakening.

Negotiators were looking for a way to shift the approach to helping hard-hit state and local governments, which was a major democratic priority but opposed by Republicans, a source familiar with the talks said. The measure, which must be linked to a spending bill to be passed Friday to avoid a government shutdown, is not expected to include new protections for companies from lawsuits related to the pandemic, which is high on the Republican agenda. state.

Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said the goal was to reach an agreement on Wednesday and this is ready for the vote starting Thursday.

The majority leader of the Republican Senate, Mitch McConnell, said he felt optimistic.

“We have made great strides towards a targeted pandemic relief package,” McConnell said in the Senate. “We need money to distribute vaccines, we need to re-establish the Paycheck Protection Program to save jobs, we need to keep taking care of fired Americans.”

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is the federal loan and grant aid program to small businesses suffering from the pandemic.

But House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said that if Friday’s midnight deadline for approving the spending measure isn’t met, he could envision a new three- or four-day spending fix to keep government agencies open while the negotiations are continuing.

Senator John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said the proposed direct payments to individuals would be about $ 600 to $ 700 per person.

Mark Ritacco, director of government affairs for the National Association of Counties, said Congress could take some steps to help local authorities, including a one-year extension of unused funds provided by the Cares Act, a Covid-19. bill passed in March.

His organization also hopes Congress will expand the number of counties that can receive aid to smaller counties, especially as they have to administer the new vaccines. It suggested allowing the federal government to supplement more local Covid-19 emergency relief costs already partially reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), such as personal protective equipment for schools and other government buildings.

But some Republicans are wary that having to pay more for Fema is a detour to provide more help from the state and local government.

“If it’s just a way of hiding money from state and local governments, we’ll have a lot of opposition,” Thune said.

The negotiations come at a key moment for a US economy that is clearly weakening after an initial recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic earlier this year. Consumer spending, boosted by the summer and early fall with more than $ 3 trillion in federal aid, has hit a wall as new lockdowns limit business activity and keep people at home.

Joe Biden said the stimulus package was encouraging, but more help would be needed.

“It looks like they are very, very close, and it looks like there will be instant cash payments, but it’s a down payment – a major down payment – for what needs to be done from the end of January, right through to February,” said the president-elect against reporters.

Data from the commerce division showed that retail sales fell unexpectedly sharply in November, with consumer spending on goods and services weak across the board.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday promised to continue to channel money into financial markets further into the future to combat the recession, even as policymakers’ outlook for next year improved after the initial rollout of a coronavirus vaccine.