Close agreement on COVID-19 economic aid bill

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Congressional negotiators on Wednesday closed a $ 900 billion COVID-19 economic relief program that would provide additional help to businesses, $ 300 a week in jobless checks and $ 600 in stimulus payments to the most Americans. But there was no agreement yet.

The long-delayed measure was coming to fruition as Capitol Hill fighters finally made difficult compromises, often at the expense of more ambitious Democratic wishes for legislation, to complete the pandemic’s second major relief package.

A hoped-for announcement on Wednesday failed to materialize as lawmakers from all walks of life hammered home the details of the sprawling legislation and key negotiators continued to trade offers. But lawmakers informed of the outline of the aid bill have freely shared them.

This is the first major legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES law in March, which provided $ 1.8 trillion in aid and more generous jobless benefits and direct payments to individuals. Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for ambitious new federal measures to provide relief and fight the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to more fully reopen the economy and avoid paying off the $ 27 trillion debt. government dollars.

President-elect Joe Biden is eager to receive an aid package to support the economy and provide direct aid to the unemployed and hungry, even if the program falls short of Democrats’ expectations. He called the emerging version a “big down payment” and pledged more help next year.

Republicans, too, are eager to approve aid before returning home for the year.

“We’re still close and we’ll get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters as he left the Capitol on Wednesday night. And during a lunchtime Senate appeal a day earlier, party leaders stressed the importance of reaching a deal before the next Georgia Senate run-off.

Details were still being worked out, but lawmakers from both parties said the leaders had agreed to a total of around $ 900 billion, with direct payments of perhaps $ 600 to most Americans and a federal unemployment premium of $ 300 per week. replace a $ 600-per-week benefit that expired this summer. It also includes the renewal of additional weeks of state unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. More than $ 300 billion in business subsidies, including a second round of “paycheck protection” payments to particularly affected businesses, are blocked, along with $ 25 billion to help struggling tenants with their jobs. payments and provide food aid and farm subsidies, and a $ 10 billion bailout for the postal service.

Democrats have recognized that cutting an estimated $ 160 billion aid program for states and local governments whose budgets have been imbalanced by the pandemic is a bitter loss.

“It’s heartbreaking for us,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose state is in serious financial trouble.

The emerging offer served as a magnet to add more items, and the two sides continued to exchange offers. It was obvious that another temporary spending bill would be needed to prevent the government shutting down at midnight Friday. It was probably going to pass easily.

House lawmakers returned to Washington on Wednesday hoping for an upcoming vote on the larger package, which would combine COVID-19 relief with a $ 1.4 trillion government funding bill and a host of other remaining congressional business, including the extension of expiring tax breaks and the passage of unfinished ones. legislation.

Negotiations intensified on Tuesday after months of futility. Ahead of the election, with Democrats prominently featured in the polls, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a firm line in seeking more help. Now McConnell is playing a strong hand after a better-than-expected performance in the election, limited GOP losses in Senate races.

The frightening and record spike in the number of COVID cases and deaths, combined with troubling economic indicators, requires agreement, however, although the emerging package contains less economic stimulus than the March aid bill.

“The case for fiscal policy right now is very, very strong,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said on Wednesday. “I think it’s widely understood now. It’s a very positive thing that we can finally get this.

McConnell was successful in getting Democrats to abandon their much-needed $ 160 billion state and local government aid package while giving up a key priority – a liability shield for businesses and other institutions like universities fearing lawsuits against COVID-19. Democrats cited other gains for states and communities in the emerging deal, such as help with transit systems, schools and the distribution of vaccines.

The addition of the $ 600 direct payments came after recent approvals from President Donald Trump and progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Who remains dissatisfied with the overall package.

“Everything in this package is absolutely necessary,” Sanders said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The problem is, this is a much smaller package than what the country needs at this time of economic desperation.”

Poisonous dynamics have long infected negotiations, but the mood was professional in two meetings in Pelosi’s Capitol Suite on Tuesday, which resulted in an explosion of progress.

Total coverage: Coronavirus pandemic

The pressure for an agreement is intense. Unemployment benefits run out on December 26 for more than 10 million people. Many companies are barely holding on after nine months of the pandemic. And it takes money to distribute new vaccines that finally offer hope to bring the country back to some semblance of normalcy.

The impending deal follows efforts by a bipartisan group of grassroots lawmakers to find common ground between a $ 2.4 trillion House bill and a shaped $ 500 billion GOP measure by McConnell.

Their $ 908 billion proposal served as a model for the talks, although the bipartisan group, led by Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, favored aid to states and localities instead of another round of stimulus. Payments. The CARES Act provided for payments of $ 1,200 per person and $ 500 per child.

“I think the work that our bipartisan group has done has really helped spur that on,” Collins said.

As Congress otherwise prepares to go out of business, lawmakers are eager to use the relief package to tackle other outstanding business.

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

The end-of-session rush also promises relief for victims of shocking surprise medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers abandon insurance company networks. This, combined with an assortment of other health policy provisions, generates savings for federal funding for community health centers.

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AP Congress correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed.

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