House passes sweeping stimulus package after days of frenetic talks

House passes sweeping stimulus package after days of frenetic talksDecember 22, 2020

UPDATE:
The House approved a $900 billion pandemic relief bill Monday night, sending it to the Senate for late-night consideration after days of hard-fought negotiations.

Ahead of a midnight shutdown deadline, lawmakers also passed a $1.4 trillion spending package to fund the government through September.

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Both chambers of Congress are now on track to approve a $900 billion coronavirus rescue package by the end of the night, capping a frenetic final week of negotiations and a last-minute computer glitch that delayed proceedings for half the day Monday.

The House will vote first on the nearly 5,593-page package, which also includes a $1.4 trillion year-end spending measure, just hours after party leaders released the legislative text. But because of a technical issue with releasing the legislation, the final vote in the lower chamber isn’t expected until roughly 10 p.m., guaranteeing a late night in the Senate.

That delay is the latest complication for congressional negotiators, who have been repeatedly tripped up by contentious policy provisions — including an issue over the Fed’s emergency lending powers — during months of stimulus talks. This time, it was an unexpected computer error that pushed back Congress’ timeline.

“Unfortunately, it’s a bad time to have a computer glitch,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said earlier in the day.

But despite the last-minute hiccup, lawmakers are predicting they’ll be able to muscle the bill over the finish line without any other major obstacles.

“I think everybody is pretty much ready for Christmas,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters.

The legislation was released around 2 p.m., though it had been expected that morning. Lawmakers complained they had little time to actually read the mammoth bill, which includes another round of direct payments to individuals, enhanced unemployment benefits and billions of dollars for struggling industries. More than $300 billion will go to small business loans, as well as new money for schools, hospitals and vaccine distribution.

“This is a tough way to legislate, to save everything til the very end and then pass a very large bill,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

Any procedural delays would further hold up the process, though House and Senate leaders have found a way to avoid a government shutdown at midnight, even if the Senate can’t pass the package in time. That’s because the House attached an automatic, weeklong stopgap bill to its “rule” for the package, which can be taken up swiftly in the Senate to keep funding flowing until President Donald Trump signs the bill.

The White House has signaled that Trump, who has been mostly absent from the negotiations, will indeed sign the measure.

Senate GOP leaders don’t know of any planned holds by their members as of Monday afternoon, though complaints could arise later in the evening. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who frequently causes headaches for leadership — told reporters that he did not plan to hold up the bill.

“We’re going to stay here until we finish tonight,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democratic and Republican leaders are confident they have the votes for passage for one of the largest relief packages in U.S. history, despite grumbling from both sides about the dysfunctional process that led to this point.

Though leadership finalized the relief deal Sunday evening, lawmakers did not see the text until mid-afternoon Monday.

“It’s not good enough to hear about what’s in the bill. Members of Congress need to see & read the bills we are expected to vote on,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted as lawmakers waited for release of the text.

Some of the emergency aid could be doled out quickly: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC Monday that checks could start appearing in people’s bank accounts in the coming days.

“I expect we’ll get the money out by the beginning of next week,” Mnuchin said, who struck an optimistic tone as he said the U.S. economy is “definitely in a much better position” than when Congress passed its last major relief measure in March.

Congressional leaders clinched the long-awaited agreement on the stimulus measure after a weekend of fierce clashes over the Fed’s emergency lending powers. Lawmakers have allocated roughly $3 trillion in response to the pandemic thus far, but were mired in gridlock for the past eight months over another aid package.

They finally reached a breakthrough after agreeing to drop liability reforms and state and local aid, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to keep fighting for additional relief under the Biden administration. “We will need to do more,” Pelosi said.

As the final major piece of legislation of the 116th Congress, party leaders will tack on several other bills to the spending measure, an annual tradition that lawmakers describe as loading up the “Christmas tree.”

That includes a hard-fought agreement to protect patients from receiving “surprise” medical bills and a compromise version of an annual intelligence authorization.

Instead of rushing the measure through on Sunday night, the House and Senate approved a one-day stopgap funding bill. The sprawling legislation taken up Monday will also include a weeklong spending patch to avoid a government shutdown while the package is printed and finalized for Trump’s signature — a process that typically takes multiple days for any large piece of legislation.

Both parties have been scrambling to reach a deal this month, with a slew of assistance programs set to expire and pressure mounting to deliver more help amid a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Congress has not delivered any substantial relief since April.

The package will provide billions to struggling sectors like mass transit, movie theaters and performance venues. But others complain they have been left out, including state and local governments and restaurants.

The extra $300-per-week in federal unemployment aid also only lasts through March, which is still weeks, if not months, before the nation expects mass vaccinations.

Many lawmakers had been pushing for $1,200 individual payments — rather than the $600 that was included. And progressives had sought a complete moratorium on evictions, as well as rent and mortgage cancellation.

Pelosi said on the floor Monday that Democrats had been pushing for the $1,200 direct payments — which were included in the last relief bill — but ran into GOP opposition.

“I would like them to have been bigger, but they are significant and they will be going out soon,” Pelosi said on the floor.

Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.

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