‘A first step’: US Congress seals $US900 billion COVID relief deal

Washington: Top Capitol Hill negotiators have sealed a deal on a $US900 billion ($1.19 trillion) COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to American businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation that has lost more than 300,000 people to the disease.

The agreement, announced by congressional leaders, will establish a temporary $US300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $US600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, healthcare providers and renters facing eviction.

Nancy Pelosi: “This emergency relief bill is an important initial step.”Credit:Bloomberg

It came after months of battling and posturing, but the negotiating dynamic changed in Republicans' favour 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 of the package the Democrats wanted.

Biden praised the bipartisan spirit that produced the measure, which he called “just the beginning".

"This is a model for the challenging work ahead for our nation," Biden said in a statement.

House leaders informed members they would vote on the legislation on Monday (Tuesday AEDT), and the Senate was likely to vote then, too. Members 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, said in announcing the agreement for a relief bill that would total almost $US900 billion. “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”

Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders gained some concessions in their negotiations over the second coronavirus relief package.Credit:AP

Democrats acknowledged it wasn’t as robust a relief package as they initially sought — or, they say, the country needs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed more to come once Biden takes office.

“It is a first step,” she said. “We have to do more.”

A fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers was resolved at the weekend 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 on Sunday (Monday AEDT).

Still, delays in finalising the agreement prompted the House to pass a one-day stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at midnight. The Senate was likely to pass the measure on Sunday night as well.

The final agreement would be the largest spending measure yet. It combined $US900 billion for COVID-19 relief with a $US1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure and education.

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 legislators 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 $US300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $US600 stimulus cheque 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 $US75,000.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff amid widespread lockdowns this northern 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.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $US908 billion plan that built a middle ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hard-line positions.

“We put our heads down and worked around the clock for nearly a month to produce a bipartisan, bicameral bill to address the emergency needs of our country," the bipartisan group of about a dozen lawmakers said in a statement. “Our consensus bill was the foundation of this final package."

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $US284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

After the announcement, Schumer and Pelosi, announced additional details, including $US25 billion in rental assistance, $US15 billion theatres and other live venues, $US82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $US10 billion for childcare.

The government wide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. That measure was likely to provide a last $US1.4 billion instalment for Trump’s US-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 $US10 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.

It also would carry numerous clean energy provisions, $US7 billion to increase access to broadband, $US4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $US14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, Amtrak and airports.

Democrats failed in a months-long battle to deliver direct fiscal relief to states and local governments, but they successfully pressed for $US22 billion would help states and local governments with COVID-19-related health expenses like testing and vaccines.

The end-of-session rush also promised relief for victims of shockingly steep surprise medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers drop out of insurance company networks.


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