US Congress seals agreement on Covid-19 relief, government funding

It came after months of battling and posturing
Last Updated 21 December 2020, 03:55 IST

US congressional leaders reached agreement on Sunday on a $900 billion package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy and individuals battered by the surging coronavirus pandemic, with votes likely on Monday.

The package would be the second-largest economic stimulus in US history, following a $2.3 trillion aid bill passed in March. It comes as the pandemic accelerates, infecting more than 214,000 people in the country each day. More than 317,000 Americans have already died.

"At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, following months of contentious debate.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the package should have enough support to quickly pass both chambers of Congress. He said Democrats would push for more aid after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.

"Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what's going on in America," Schumer said at a news conference.

The package, which must be signed into law by President Donald Trump, would give $600 direct payments to individuals and boost unemployment payments by $300 a week. It also includes billions for small businesses, food assistance, vaccine distribution, transit and healthcare. It extends a moratorium on foreclosures and provides $25 billion in rental aid.

Lawmakers said they had resolved disputes over the Federal Reserve's pandemic lending authority and other issues that had forced negotiations into the weekend.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives will likely vote on the package on Monday, with the Republican-controlled Senate to follow, according to House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer.

Congress aims to include the coronavirus aid package in a $1.4 trillion spending bill funding government programs through September 2021.

But government funding is due to expire at midnight Sunday (0500 GMT Monday). The House voted 329-65 to extend funding through Monday, buying more time to pass the coronavirus package and the larger government spending bill. The Senate must approve the temporary spending bill on Sunday, and Trump must sign it into law, to avoid disruption.

Sticking points omitted

The relief bill leaves out two of the most contentious elements in the negotiations: legal protections for businesses from coronavirus lawsuits, which had been sought by Republicans, and the substantial aid for state and local governments advocated by Democrats.

But the package helps state and local governments indirectly by providing billions for schools, coronavirus testing and other expenses, Schumer said.

It also includes elements unrelated to the pandemic: a bipartisan provision that aims to end surprise medical billing, and one that authorizes flood control and other water-related projects.

The bill would allow Federal Reserve emergency lending programs to expire on December 31 for businesses and state and local governments, which Republicans said were an unnecessary government interference in private business. But it does not prevent similar programs from being created.

The pandemic will stand as the largest crisis facing Biden's new administration, although signs of hope have emerged as the United States has begun vaccinating people against the highly contagious respiratory disease.

In the 11 months since the first cases of the new coronavirus were documented in the United States, Covid-19 has put millions of Americans out of work, with unemployment rising. Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.

(Published 21 December 2020, 02:47 IST)

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