Congress strikes stimulus deal after days of frantic talks

Congress strikes stimulus deal after days of frantic talksDecember 21, 2020

Congressional leaders on Sunday clinched a Covid stimulus deal after days of hard-fought negotiations — but Americans will have to wait at least a little longer to get much needed relief.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Sunday evening that negotiators had finalized a $900 billion coronavirus aid package, after breaking a multi-day stalemate over the Federal Reserve’s lending powers.

“At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I hope we can do this as promptly as possible.”

But with legislative text still yet to be released, a House vote on final passage has slipped to Monday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) informed House Democrats on a private conference call. The Senate is expected to take up the bill quickly afterward, though McConnell declined to offer a timeline.

In the meantime, with current government funding expiring at midnight, the House will vote Sunday evening on a one-day stop-gap funding bill. And on Monday, it will consider a week-long spending patch to buy time for the Senate to pass the relief deal — and for the federal government to print it and finalize it for President Donald Trump’s signature. The $900 billion package will ride alongside a bill to fund the government through next September.

“We need to be able to read it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) of the massive rescue and spending package. “You’re literally voting on something no one has read right at that point. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of that.”

The 11th-hour breakthrough comes after Congress struggled for months to deliver another relief package, even as the health crisis worsened. Adding to the sense of urgency, a number of critical aid programs are to expire on Dec. 26, while the coronavirus death toll has hit 315,000 in the United States. Lawmakers have already allocated $3 trillion toward the pandemic.

The day brought mostly positive momentum after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hatched a deal late Saturday with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) over the GOP’s demand to wind down lending programs established by the relief bill passed in March. With that roadblock removed and a deal announced, the House and Senate are now on a glide path to approve the aid package and its partner, a $1.4 trillion bill funding the government through September.

Though the Fed feud dominated the past 48 hours, the crux of the package remains the same: a $300 boost in weekly unemployment benefits, $600 relief checks for adults and children, more than $300 billion for small business aid and huge pots of money for schools, hospitals and vaccine distribution. Negotiators left behind an attempt to marry a liability shield with aid for state and local governments after it proved impossible to negotiate.

“Make no mistake about it: this agreement is far from perfect, but it will deliver emergency relief to a nation in the throes of a genuine emergency,” Schumer said on the floor.

And it could be a big vote: Toomey, a diehard fiscal conservative, even said earlier Sunday that he intends to support the package that will amount to roughly $2.3 trillion.

“Despite the significant reservations I have about some particular features, I think the good outweighs the bad and it is my intention at this point to vote for it,” Toomey told reporters after describing how he and Democrats narrowed his proposal to only affect a handful of programs that were opened in specific response to the pandemic.

But even with McConnell’s announcement of a deal, some of the specific language of the deal was still being settled, senior House Democrats said on a private caucus call taking place at the same time. Democrats were also left in the dark about potential vote timing — Pelosi had been pushing all day to vote late Sunday but other lawmakers and aides were skeptical of that timeline.

Still, it was notable how rushed the process had become. No bill text was available by 5 p.m. despite constant reassurances from congressional leaders they were close to a deal.

But the race to jam a multi-trillion dollar rescue and spending package through the House and Senate has infuriated some Republicans and Democrats, even if they are still likely to vote for the final product.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said she’s “frustrated to be part of an institution that is so dysfunctional that it doesn’t even work until the last minute.”

Still, congressional leaders are expected to be able to muscle the package through both chambers — it’s just a matter of how quickly they can do so.

Trump, who has been largely uninvolved in the stimulus talks, urged lawmakers to boost the direct payments, joining a bipartisan chorus led by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). They’d like to see checks double in size to $1,200, the amount approved by Congress in March.

Asked about Trump’s drive for larger checks on Fox News Sunday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said: “We need to get this done today. The president is right in that this is no fault of the American people.”

Each side sought to portray the agreement on the Fed’s lending as a victory after both parties dug in on Saturday. Toomey and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Schumer eventually broke the deadlock.

A Democratic aide said Toomey dropped his drive to prevent “the Fed Chair from establishing similar facilities in the future to the ones created in March.”

Toomey acknowledged he narrowed his proposal but said he is “very pleased” he achieved all his goals: Rescinding unspent funding for the CARES Act facilities, winding them down and banning their reopening and barring clones.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — who briefed the House GOP during a Sunday conference call — also claimed victory after bringing Democrats down from their initial $3 trillion proposal. But several members complained that the deal didn’t include a provision to ensure small business loans are tax deductible, according to a source on the call. Late on Sunday, Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, confirmed Sunday evening that the fix is included in the bill after all.

The package that will be approved by Congress is massive. The omnibus spending bill also includes an agreement to protect patients from receiving “surprise” medical bills after last-minute haggling — a major priority for retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). And it will include a compromise version of an annual intelligence authorization bill.

Sanders hinted Friday that he could object to swift consideration of the measure if it does not include “substantial” direct payments. He has declined to draw a specific red line, though. Any one senator could use procedural tools to prevent the government from being funded past Sunday.

Caitlin Emma and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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