Following a protracted legislative debate over providing critically needed financial relief to millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, progressive lawmakers have criticised a final $900bn deal that includes $600 direct payments as insufficient to address the scale of the crisis.
After an 11th-hour deal reached moments before an extended deadline averting a government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Sunday that Congress can “finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way”.
Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib responded on Twitter: “More help for who?”
She added: “How are the millions of people facing evictions, remain unemployed, standing in food bank [and] soup kitchen lines supposed to live off of $600? We didn’t send help for 8 months. This is not leadership. There is no compassion, just politics of greed and power.”
The relief package includes $600 direct-payment stimulus cheques per person, along with an extension of federal unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week.
Through the CARES Act, weekly jobless aid was supported by $600 in federal unemployment benefits. That provision expired in July. Millions of Americans also received one-time $1,200 stimulus checks in April.
But unemployment insurance would not be retroactive, and direct payments would apply only to people who earned $75,000 or less, based on their earnings in the 2019 tax year, not during 2020.
The latest relief package also includes a “three-martini lunch” corporate meal expenses deduction, pushed by Donald Trump, as a way to support struggling businesses. Critics slammed the measure as another handout supported by congressional Republicans while scrutinising benefits for out-of-work Americans.
Following the bill’s passage, incoming progressive Democratic congresswoman Cori Bush said “$600 is not enough … $1,200 was already the compromise.” Democratic congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman called a $600 stimulus a “slap in the face”.
Senators Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer and Josh Hawley argued for another round of $1,200 checks, as more than 20 million Americans are still on some form of unemployment aid, and millions others have struggled financially in the pandemic’s economic fallout.
But a last-minute push on Friday among Republicans to reject similarly sized cash payments and cut off the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending abilities threatened to derail lawmakers’ efforts.
Ahead of the passage of the legislation, which Congress agreed should be some form of direct cheque to Americans following a one-time payment from April that put $1,200 into millions of Americans’ bank accounts, Republicans rejected efforts to do the same, eight months later, as the pandemic and its effects worsen.
“If this country means anything, if democracy means anything, if the US government means anything, it means we cannot turn our backs on this suffering,” Senator Sanders said on Friday. “It means we cannot leave Washington as senators for the holidays to go back to our families unless we address the pain and anxiety of other families in this country.”
Republican Senator Ron Johnson repeatedly said that the costs of direct cheques to Americans would be “mortgaging our kids’ future” despite his own support for the $2.2trn CARES Act package along with the president’s $1.75trn tax cuts and the recent passage of a $741bn defence budget.
“We do not have an unlimited checking account,” he said on Friday. “We have to be concerned about these things.”
The senator argued that the national debt – which has ballooned by $7trn to $27trn within Trump’s term, which the senator has steadfastly supported – can’t withstand additional financial relief for struggling Americans.
“In this time of crisis, it is comical that suddenly our Republican friends, once again, discover that we have a deficit,” Senator Sanders added. “This is a moment of emergency … We have got to respond to the needs of working families.”
Senate Schumer also slammed “ludicrous” arguments among “deficit scolds” in Congress.
Democratic Congressman Ro Kanna said the finalised package is” less than we need, and far less than we could have gotten earlier this year.”
He added on Twitter: “8 million have fallen into poverty since June. If we hadn’t made this deal today, 12 million Americans were going to lose unemployment benefits. But, again, this is not nearly enough for people. … This is a survival bill, not a progressive one.”
Democratic lawmakers touted some achievements in the package, including funding for local vaccine distribution, rental assistance, school funding, childcare support and extending Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, for millions of Americans.