After months of leaving Americans to fend for themselves amid the coronavirus pandemic and waves of layoffs, the leaders of Congress said Sunday evening they had reached agreement on a new piece of COVID-19 relief legislation.
The announcement came after days of tense negotiations among the leaders of both houses, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as both parties worked to reach a deal alongside a funding bill to keep the government open. The legislation came after a proposal worked up by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and is a step toward fulfilling the leaders’ pledge not to leave for Christmas break before a bill reaches President Trump’s desk.
Related: Six ways Washington’s gridlock on COVID-19 is hurting ordinary Americans
While the agreement was announced Sunday along with a summary from Democratic leadership, and various provisions of the bill were reported in the media, the text had not been released as of Monday morning, the day voting was expected to begin.
“We’ve agreed to a package of nearly $900 billion, with targeted policies that help struggling Americans who’ve already waited entirely too long,” McConnell said Sunday on the Senate floor. “At long last, we had the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed. Now we need to properly finalize tax avoidance or last-minute obstacles and cooperate to move this legislation through both chambers.”
“Our purpose has always been to crush the virus, to put money in the pockets of the American people, which we do in this legislation,” Pelosi said at a press conference Sunday evening.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act that passed in March actually caused poverty to fall, keeping Americans afloat during the economic downturn with a combination of $1,200 stimulus checks and enhanced federal unemployment payments. As the direct payments were spent and expanded unemployment insurance ended, nearly 8 million Americans fell into poverty, according to a new study. The Democratic House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May, but the Republican-controlled Senate never took it up or passed a COVID-19 relief bill of its own.
Pelosi has defended her decision to reject a White House proposal of $1.8 trillion in relief in early October after calling the offer (of double the current proposal) “half a loaf.” The proposal had also met with resistance from GOP senators.
COVID-19 has killed more than 317,000 people in the United States, including a single-day record of 3,600 on Wednesday. New unemployment claims have spiked this month, while census data found that 1 in 8 Americans reported running short of food during a single week in November.
The bill the leaders agreed to adds direct payments to Americans via stimulus checks, with $600 to each adult and child for families making under $75,000 a year, gradually phased out for incomes up to $100,000. Adult dependents will not qualify for the stimulus payments, but families where only one parent is a citizen will be eligible. The amount is lower than the $1,200 issued earlier this year, and its inclusion comes after extensive lobbying from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, chaired by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who insisted last week that “any COVID relief package MUST include survival checks and enhanced unemployment assistance.”
According to reporting from CNN, McConnell wanted to include the direct payments to help Georgia Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are “getting hammered” on the issue in their campaigns to keep their seats in the runoff elections Jan. 5.
Voting has already begun in the state. McConnell’s control of the Senate hinges on Republicans retaining at least one of the seats.
“Everything that is in that package is vitally needed,” Sanders said last week in an MSNBC interview. “The problem is that it is a much smaller package than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation.”
Extended unemployment assistance, which was part of the bipartisan bill floated earlier this month, remains in the bill, but its duration is reduced and is set to expire in March. The amount is $300 per week, or half the rate of that in the CARES Act. There also will not be retroactive payments to cover the period between the expiration of the CARES Act this summer and the enactment of the new plan.
The legislation also addresses a number of other expanded unemployment programs put into effect by the CARES Act that are set to expire on Dec. 26 and would leave as many as 12 million Americans without weekly checks without the extension in the new legislation. A Columbia University study published last week projected 4.8 million more Americans would fall into poverty if the programs were not extended.
The total price tag on the bill reflects Republican insistence on keeping the amount below $1 trillion. In a floor speech Friday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., decried the bill as irresponsible in light of the federal budget deficit, which has ballooned during the Trump administration with the passage of the Republican-backed tax cut bill in 2017. Johnson’s sudden conversion to frugality led him to block a proposal to raise the stimulus checks to $1,200.
The bill also includes an expansion of the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered struggling small companies (generally those with 500 or fewer workers) forgivable loans to help them retain workers and keep up with rent and other expenses. The program has helped some businesses but has been criticized for directing a disproportionate amount of the funds to larger businesses. Beneficiaries also included tenants at properties owned by Trump and the family of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Fifteen billion dollars in the new deal have been allotted for live event venues, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions like museums.
The proposal includes a one-month extension of the partial federal eviction moratorium that is set to expire on Dec. 31, helping to keep millions of Americans housed to start the new year. Advocates of moratoriums say they are particularly important during a pandemic, as one study released earlier this month found. While the moratoriums stop evictions, back rents continue to accrue, and economists are still concerned about the effect on households.
“America is plagued by two coexisting crises: the spread of COVID-19 due to eviction and the eviction crisis itself,” Emily Benfer, chair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction and a co-author of the study, told Yahoo News. “Moratoriums are a critical component of any pandemic mitigation strategy and are as essential as handwashing and self-quarantining to stopping the transmission of COVID-19. But without rent relief to address the $25 [billion to] $35 billion in rental debt, moratoriums alone cannot end the eviction crisis and protect families from severe and devastating harm from eviction and foreclosure when the rent isn’t paid.”
The bill also contains funding for mass transit agencies, education, food assistance programs, payments to farmers, vaccine distribution, an increase in COVID-19 testing capacity, childcare and more access to broadband internet. After pushing from the White House, the draft proposal includes a tax break for corporate meals, tabbed the “three-martini lunch” deduction by critics. Per a Washington Post report, Democrats agreed to the addition in exchange for tax credits for low-income families.
The proposal does not include hazard pay for essential workers. Two other items that did not make the bill had been key sticking points in negotiations for months. One was federal aid for state and local governments that have seen their revenues drop precipitously during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Republicans have opposed the measure, which Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., described as spending “hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out wasteful states.”
The two sides were also unable to come to terms on a plank important to Republicans: a liability shield that would protect businesses from lawsuits if employees contracted the coronavirus. Democrats said the proposal, by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was too broad. Unions pushed back as well, with the AFL-CIO sending a letter to legislators last week calling on them to “reject any broad liability shield legislation,” stating that it had an “enormous and dangerous loophole that will let employers off the hook for not following workplace safety requirements.”
During the weekend, negotiators resolved a previous sticking point, reaching a compromise on a demand by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to end a Federal Reserve emergency lending program at the end of the year.
Pelosi said it would be easier to get more relief passed next year after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in, but the prospects are uncertain, as Pelosi will command a smaller House majority, and the Senate will remain in Republican hands unless Democrats win both of the Georgia runoffs.
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