After nearly nine months of on-and-off negotiations, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders have finally reached agreement on another sweeping Covid relief package.
The deal struck Wednesday, worth an initial estimate of $900bn, is the 11th-hour culmination of talks that abruptly intensified on Tuesday evening between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on one side and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, on the other.
The bill in its current form includes another round of direct payments to most Americans, this time worth only between $600 and $700 instead of the $1,200 taxpayers received in the spring.
Mr Trump, congressional Democrats (led in the Senate by Bernie Sanders) and even some Republicans (headlined by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley) have been pushing hard for a renewal of the full amount.
Another boon for struggling Americans is the bill’s reauthorisation of a crucial Covid-era programme supplementing recently laid-off workers’ state unemployment cheques. Democrats had been pushing to keep that federal unemployment subsidy at $600 per week, but at Republicans’ insistence it has been reduced to $300. The unemployment programme was set to expire on 26 December, the ultimate deadline for getting another Covid deal across the finish line.
The bill also includes more than $300bn in reauthorisation of and new funding for key business lending programmes, including Treasury’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that has been credited with keeping millions of Americans employed at small businesses throughout the pandemic.
Billions more in funding will go towards the federal government’s nationwide vaccine distribution programme, which launched this week.
The Covid package is expected to ride alongside an omnibus government appropriations package that must pass both chambers of Congress and receive Mr Trump’s signature before midnight on Friday to avert a government shutdown.
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Not included in the package are any provisions addressing Democrats’ and Republicans’ top respective priorities.
Since April, Democrats have called for an injection of hundreds of billions of dollars for states and localities to help those governments on the frontlines of the pandemic response.
Mr McConnell has been equally insistent on including a legal shield for businesses, health care providers, and school systems against liability lawsuits related to Covid exposure.
Leaders appear to have kicked the can down the road on both issue to break the months-long impasse and ensure they can get home to their families for Christmas.
The roughly $900bn Covid bill that emerged on Wednesday is a far cry from the $2.2trn bill House Democrats passed on a party-line vote in October that set the baseline for their negotiations with Republicans.
The Democratic bill included massive state and local cash infusions as well as provisions loosening marijuana laws, investing in universal internet broadband infrastructure, and renewing the full $1,200 stimulus cheque programme, among several others.
Democrats will be eager to negotiate another deal when Joe Biden takes office, but Mr McConnell, who adopted a wait-and-see approach to pandemic legislation throughout the summer months of 2020, could once again frustrate the pace of negotiations.
“Democrats would have liked to go considerably further,” Mr Schumer admitted on Wednesday hours before the final legislative product emerged.
“But this won’t be the last time Congress speaks on Covid relief. Right now, we must address this emergency over the short term,” he said.
A final product less than half the size of Democrats’ final pre-election offer will be a tough sell to progressives who grumbled that even $2.2trn was not enough.
They have taken to calling the $1,200 stimulus cheques “survival cheques.” Their spirit animal, Mr Sanders, has previously threatened to shut down the government this Friday if that programme is not re-upped in full.
As the details of Wednesday’s bill were emerging, the Vermont Independent did not immediately say how he would approach the Covid package vis-à-vis the impending government funding lapse. While the Covid package had some encouraging elements, it “does not go anywhere near enough,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
The menu of Covid provisions is expected to be bolted onto the massive $1.4trn government appropriations package to fund federal operations through fiscal year 2021.
Government funding zeroes out on Friday, and due to the convoluted nature of Senate voting procedures, Mr Sanders could single-handedly delay a vote until after that deadline as leverage for the full $1,200 direct payments instead of the pared-down $600-per-cheque proposal.
Mr Schumer indicated on Wednesday that Democrats would have other chances in the future to negotiate a Covid deal.
“Make no mistake, we will work in the future to provide additional relief, as the country requires,” the minority leader said. “But we need to provide a platform to build on. We need to address this emergency right now. At the end of one of the most difficult years in recent American history, a vaccine has given us all a reason for hope. Let’s give the country another reason. The finish line is in sight.”