Congress Strikes Deal for Covid Relief

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaks to the media after the Republican’s weekly Senate luncheon, Dec. 8, 2020 at the Capitol in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The coronavirus pandemic has rocked the United States for 11 months, leaving millions unemployed and hundreds of thousands dead, but a deal for emergency relief has finally been struck in Congress Sunday afternoon. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the announcement Sunday.

“We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way,” he said. 

Lawmakers still need to pass a continuing resolution, temporarily infusing the U.S. economy with much needed cash before another shutdown threatens to shutter the government.

McConnell said the two sides were still negotiating the final text of the bill. The House is expected to vote on it Monday, followed by the Senate.

“I’m hopeful we can do this as promptly as possible,” he said.

“The emergency relief in this agreement, the second largest in history only to the CARES Act, is an important first step that Democrats look forward to building on under the new Biden-Harris Administration to meet the remaining needs of the American people during this historic health and economic crisis,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said in a joint statement.

Ahead of the rollout, senators wrestled on terms of passing the relief legislation. For several days at press conferences or from the floor of the Senate, McConnell vowed the body was “going nowhere” until it passed bipartisan relief.

The Kentucky Republican did, however, successfully confirm another judge mere hours later, then two more on Wednesday and again on Thursday and is poised to approve at least one more through the weekend.

Upping the ante in negotiations, the Congressional Progressive Caucus took a firm position with leadership that they would vote against any measure missing stimulus checks. 

In the new agreement, relief aid somewhat mirrors what was offered by the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 50 moderate lawmakers who sought to break up the congressional logjam once and for all with a two-part compromise earlier this week. 

Aid agreed to Sunday totals $900 billion and the funds will be used to extend unemployment benefits for another 10 weeks. 

It will feature a $300 weekly unemployment benefit, lower than what the Democrats sought in the House-passed $2.2 trillion Heroes Act this May but gig workers and frontline pandemic workers will be able to collect the insurance as well.  

Direct payments like the $1,200 stimulus checks issued at the start of the pandemic will not be included. Instead, individuals will receive $600.

Small businesses will receive $325 billion in relief and the Paycheck Protection Program which issues loans to companies that need to keep employees on the payroll, will see an investment of $257 billion. 

Arts and entertainment venues that have been brutalized by the pandemic will also receive a boost of about $17 billion.

Senator Bernie Sanders, from the Senate floor before negotiations were finalized, said Americans were financially dependent on government stimulus in a way not realized since the Great Depression. In his own neighborhood, he said on Dec. 16, he would never forget the sight of thousands of cars congesting a local highway as families queued to a local food bank.

“It is my hope that not only do we make sure that unemployment benefits are extended for another 16 weeks at $300 per week, it is my hope that we can see some light here and get to the $1,200 direct payment that adults in this country desperately need,” Sanders said. 

Thursday, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin outlined aspects of the Problem Solvers’ proposal in-depth, noting the bill contained $13 billion to shore up food stamp programs, and $34 billion for hospitals. 

Democrats and Republicans agreed to another $82 billion to bail out higher education programs and universities while setting aside $10 billion to address one of the nation’s biggest issues: Access to affordable child care. 

“If they can’t find childcare, many people can’t go back to work,” Durbin said. “We want to give them help.” 

Broadband accessibility too, is increasingly difficult to fund and Durbin said legislators wanted to help kick-start it— especially as access to the internet became essential as students transitioned to online learning. 

“Funding the government is basic to our work in Congress and this Covid relief bill is essential as well,” he said. 

Strapped renters will see some relief too: The deal dumps $25 billion into a rental assistance pot. Some $35 billion would be allotted just for a health care provider relief fund and $16 billion will flow to coronavirus testing and distribution of the long-awaited Covid-19 vaccine. 

The Foundation for Economic Education reported in early December that polling conducted by the longtime independent news group Education Week suggests roughly 5 million school age children in the U.S. are learning from home. 

As for state and local governments awaiting assistance, another deal will be made later, something McConnell forecast earlier this week.

“We all know the new administration is going to be asking for yet another package,” he said Tuesday before the deal was rolled out. “It’s not like we won’t have another opportunity to debate the merits of liability reform and state and local government in the very near future.”

That coming bill will likely include language around the liability protections that had stalled negotiations for months.

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