Hill leaders close in on Covid stimulus deal

Hill leaders close in on Covid stimulus dealDecember 16, 2020

Congressional negotiators are on the brink of a coronavirus rescue package that would include a second round of direct payments and boost unemployment benefits, but would leave out state and local funding and a liability shield, according to lawmakers and sources briefed on the talks.

The price tag of the emerging deal is roughly $900 billion, and a deal could be finalized on Wednesday, those sources said. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said the proposal would likely include direct checks to individuals of $600 to $700 and a weekly unemployment boost of $300 through March.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded upbeat on Wednesday morning about the progress that the top four congressional leaders had made over the last 24 hours. He said he believed the impending compromise can pass both the House and Senate and gain support from both parties.

“We made major headway for hammering out a targeted relief package,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also said negotiators are close to an agreement. He also said that his party would push for a larger deal next year when Joe Biden assumes the presidency.

“It’s not a done deal yet. But we are very close. For Democrats, this has always been about getting the American people the relief they need,” said Schumer, describing the urgency of addressing the current “emergency” situation after nearly eight months without a new tranche Covid stimulus. “We Democrats would have liked to go considerably further.”

The direct checks will be far less than the $1,200 per person included in the previous relief package and below the level of a now-expired $600 unemployment boosts in order to keep the cost of the bill in check. President Donald Trump is pushing to send out checks to Americans, and has backing from liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). The Congressional Progressive Caucus has also demanded direct payments to individuals, but it’s not clear whether liberals will be mollified with such a sum.

The proposal would also include roughly $325 billion in small business relief, including $257 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program that helps employers keep on workers who otherwise might go on unemployment, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

Schumer is pushing for as much as $17 billion for a Save Our Stages provision to help idled venues. Republicans and some Democrats are concerned it will come at the expense of a fund to help restaurants devastated by the pandemic, but Democrats said Schumer wants to help both restaurants and entertainment venues.

The deal would also include large sums of funding for, vaccine distribution, education, transportation and health care. And lawmakers are ready to get out of town for the holidays after a breakneck lame duck.

“Some of the our folks who typically might in circumstances like this want to slow things down are, I don’t think, inclined to do that,” Thune said. He said it would still be possible for the House and Senate to pass the massive package before the Friday deadline and not necessitate another stopgap funding bill.

The negotiations moved rapidly. The four congressional leaders — McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Schumer, met late into the night Tuesday in the Capitol with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin joining by telephone.

The negotiators are racing to notch an agreement that would ride alongside a year-long, $1.4 trillion funding bill that needs to pass by Friday. Pelosi wants a vote by the end of the week, but the situation is still moving quickly.

The two most contentious items — funding for state and local governments and a liability shield for businesses — have been left out of the agreement. The state and local funding was a priority for Pelosi, Schumer and other Democrats, while Republicans wanted the liability shield. McConnell suggested dropping both, and a bipartisan group that offered Congress a framework for the leadership talks also jettisoned the two contentious provisions.

This emerging compromise does not include that pot of money as originally envisioned but Democratic negotiators say they have secured other aid to states in the bill. Republicans have vowed to fight for a liability shield and Democrats for more state and local aid next year when Biden is sworn as president and pivots to confronting the United States’ precarious economic situation.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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