US Congress pushes to agree on COVID-19 relief deal as shutdown deadline approaches

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (Reuters) – The US Congress faced a deadline on Friday to agree to a new round of COVID-19 aid under a sweeping government funding bill, pass a third bill on interim spending so negotiations can continue, or leave the government closed at midnight.

After months of partisan inaction and inaction, Republicans and Democrats negotiated intensely this week on what is expected to be a $ 900 billion bill to provide relief to a country struggling with a pandemic that has killed nearly 309,000 Americans.

They reported progress, but enough differences remained on Thursday evening that talks likely continue until the weekend.

Several lawmakers have raised the possibility that the federal government will run out of cash early on Saturday morning, if Congress is unable to pass a temporary government funding bill by midnight Friday.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber would remain in session throughout the weekend if necessary, citing the urgent need.

“The Senate is not going anywhere until we receive relief from COVID,” he said, adding that senators would vote throughout the weekend on more appointments for the Republican president outgoing Donald Trump.

The prospect of a government shutdown increases the pressure to come up with a back-up plan. A shutdown could force thousands of people out of work and disrupt services in a time of high unemployment and uncertainty over the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

A Democratic House of Representatives aide familiar with the negotiations said there was confidence that the Democratic-led House could meet the Friday midnight deadline.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters the negotiators “are doing well.” When asked if a back-up plan would be passed in the House on Friday, she replied only, “We’ll see, we’ll see.”

Coronavirus legislation is expected to include stimulus checks of around $ 600, extended unemployment benefits, aid to states distributing the vaccine, and assistance to small businesses battling the pandemic.

Members of Congress said they were urged to act by an alarming increase in hospitalizations and deaths from the pandemic. The coronavirus death toll in the United States is by far the highest in the world, and many Americans – who do not receive automatic government assistance in many other countries – are struggling.

Republican Senator Rob Portman pointed to the growing lines of unemployed Americans at food banks. “Something’s going on here, people… people wait five, six hours for a box of food.”

Republicans also have a wary eye on the impact inaction could have on a pair of January 5 two-rounds in Georgia, which will decide whether their party maintains control of the Senate for the next two years or cedes it to the Democrats.

House and Senate leaders are negotiating a $ 900 billion bill that would be paired with a $ 1.4 trillion measure to fund federal programs through September 2021. They hope to pass both in time to avoid a stop.

Obstacles to a deal include differences over an emergency Federal Reserve loan program, how to handle eviction prevention, food aid for the poor, and reimbursement to local governments for expenses such as equipment. personal protection for schools.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Edited by Rosalba O’Brien

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