Second round of stimulus checks: lawmakers strike a deal with COVID-19 bill for $ 900 billion economic aid

WASHINGTON – Congressional negotiators are approaching a $ 900 billion COVID-19 economic aid package that would provide additional assistance to businesses, $ 300 a week of jobless checks and $ 600 in stimulus payments to most Americans. But there was no deal yet.

The long-delayed move came together when Capitol Hill fighters finally made tough compromises, often at the expense of more ambitious democratic wishes for legislation, to complete the pandemic’s second major aid package.

A hoped-for announcement on Wednesday did not materialize as lawmakers across the spectrum brought out details of the expansive legislation and top negotiators continued to exchange offers. But lawmakers who had been briefed on the outline of the aid law freely shared them.

It is the first major legislative response to the pandemic since the historic CARES law in March, which brought in $ 1.8 trillion in aid and more generous benefits and direct payments to individuals. Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for ambitious further federal steps to provide relief and combat the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to fully reopen the economy and avoid filling the $ 27 trillion government debt.

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President-elect Joe Biden is eager to get an aid package to support the economy and provide immediate aid to the unemployed and hungry, even if the package doesn’t match what Democrats want. He called the upcoming version “a major down payment” and promised more help next year.

Republicans, too, would like to approve some help before going home this year.

“We are still close and we will get there,” Mitch McConnell, majority leader of the Kentucky senate, said Wednesday night as he left the Capitol. And during a GOP lunchtime call in the Senate a day earlier, party leaders stressed the importance of reaching an agreement ahead of the upcoming Senate elections in Georgia.

The details were still being worked out, but lawmakers from both parties said leaders had agreed on a total amount of about $ 900 billion, with direct payments of perhaps $ 600 to most Americans and federal unemployment benefits of $ 300 a week up to a partial amount. replace a benefit of $ 600 per week that has expired this summer. It also includes the extension of additional weeks of state unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. More than $ 300 billion in business grants, including a second round of “wage protection” payments to particularly hard-hit companies, have been locked up, as well as $ 25 billion to help struggling tenants with their payments and provide food aid and agricultural subsidies, and a rescue plan of $ 10 billion for the postal service.

Democrats recognized that the scrapping of an aid package of about $ 160 billion for state and local governments whose budgets have been unbalanced by the pandemic was a bitter loss.

“It’s heartbreaking for us,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, whose state is facing serious tax problems.

The emerging pack served as a magnet for adding other items, and the two sides continued to exchange offers. It was clear that another temporary bill would be needed to keep the government from closing at midnight on Friday. That would probably pass easily.

House lawmakers returned to Washington on Wednesday in the hope that a vote would soon be reached on the broader package, which would combine the COVID-19 relief with $ 1.4 trillion government funding and a host of other remaining congressional matters, including renewing of expiring tax breaks and the passing of other unfinished legislation.

Negotiations intensified on Tuesday after months of futility. Before the election, when Democrats were high in the polls, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed hard for more help. Now McConnell is playing a strong hand after a better-than-expected performance in the limited GOP losses of the election in the Senate races.

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However, the frightening, record increase in COVID caseloads and deaths, combined with troubling economic indicators, is forcing an agreement, even though the emerging package contains less economic stimulus than the March aid law.

“The arguments for fiscal policy are very strong right now,” said Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. “I think that is now widely understood. It is very positive that we are finally starting to understand that.”

McConnell successfully pushed for Democrats to drop their much-needed $ 160 billion state and local government aid package, while giving up a major priority of his own – a liability shield for corporations and other institutions such as universities that fear were for COVID-19 lawsuits. Democrats cited other benefits to states and places in the emerging deal, such as aid for transit systems, schools, and vaccine distribution.

The addition of the $ 600 direct payments came after recent approval from President Donald Trump as well as progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Who remains unhappy with the overall package.

“Everything in that package is vital,” Sanders said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “The problem is that it is a much smaller package than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation.”

A toxic dynamic has long tainted negotiations, but the atmosphere was businesslike at two meetings in Pelosi’s Capitol suite on Tuesday that resulted in a burst of progress.

The pressure to close a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits expire on December 26 for more than 10 million people. Many companies are only just hanging around after nine months of the pandemic. And money is needed to distribute new vaccines that finally offer hope to restore a semblance of normalcy to the country.

The looming agreement follows attempts by a bipartisan group of regular lawmakers to strike a middle ground between a $ 2.4 trillion home bill and a $ 500 billion GOP measure formed by McConnell.

Their $ 908 billion proposal served as a template for the talks, although the bipartisan group, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, preferred state and local aid to another round of stimulus. payments. The CARES law provided for payments of $ 1,200 per person and $ 500 per child.

“I think the work that our two-party group has been doing has really boosted this,” said Collins.

As Congress prepares differently to close shop, lawmakers are eager to use the aid package for other unfinished business.

A key candidate is a 369-page water resources law that targets $ 10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environment and coastal protection projects. Another possible addition would extend favorable tax treatment for “see-through” entities of offshore subsidiaries of US companies. Meanwhile, thousands of craft brewers, wineries and distillers will face higher taxes in April if their tax break is not extended.

The rush at the end of the session also promises relief for victims of shockingly high medical surprise bills, a phenomenon common when providers leave insurance company networks. That measure, combined with an assortment of other health policy provisions, is delivering savings for federal funding for community health centers.

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