US legislators float new $908bn coronavirus aid package

The amount falls short of previous plans for trillion-dollar sums, but could serve as interim measure until next year.

A passenger gets swabbed for COVID-19 at a testing site at the convention centre in Providence, Rhode Island in December 2020, amid the coronavirus resurgence [David Goldman/AP Photo]

A bipartisan group of US legislators on Tuesday unveiled a $908bn COVID-19 relief bill aimed at breaking a months-long deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over new emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployed people, airlines and other industries during the pandemic.

The measure has not yet been written into legislation. Nor has it been embraced yet by the Republican Trump administration, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden or leaders in the Senate or House of Representatives, all of whom would be needed for passage.

But it comes with the backing of a group of conservatives and moderates who claim it will appeal to a broad swathe of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress should include a fresh wave of coronavirus stimulus in a must-pass $1.4 trillion spending bill aimed at heading off a government shutdown.

McConnell and President-elect Joe Biden separately spoke of passing a coronavirus aid bill quickly and debating an additional bill early next year to address the worst US health crisis in living memory.

But difficult talks over details remained with little time to spare, as Congress rushes to pass a $1.4 trillion bill by December 11 to keep government agencies funded. Without action, a range of government programmes would be interrupted and many federal workers would be furloughed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at a campaign event in Florence, Kentucky, US [File: Bryan Woolston/Reuters]

McConnell said he would like to marry the funding bill with a coronavirus aid measure.

“We need a targeted relief bill” now, McConnell told reporters after meeting with his fellow Republican senators. For months he has been pushing a $500bn approach that Democrats rejected as insufficient.

McConnell also said that he consulted with the White House and was circulating to Republican senators the outline of a bill that President Donald Trump would accept.

McConnell did not provide details.

If the bipartisan coronavirus aid bill gains traction in coming days, it could either be attached to the spending bill or advance on a separate track.

“It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner.

Earlier this year, more than $3 trillion in coronavirus aid was enacted, which included economic stimulus measures and money for medical supplies.

The unveiling of the plan at a Capitol Hill news conference came as the number of coronavirus cases surged in the US, coupled with significant increases in deaths and many hospital resources at a breaking point.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski urged quick action on the bipartisan plan as she ticked off business closures mushrooming in her state of Alaska “during a pretty dark and cold time of year,” with many suffering job losses and food insecurity.

Shoppers comply with mask regulations to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Bridgton Books in Bridgton, Maine [Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo]

The bipartisan proposal would provide emergency aid through March 31, including $228bn in additional Paycheck Protection Program funds for hotels, restaurants and other small businesses.

State and local governments would receive direct aid under the bipartisan bill, the legislators said.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, appealed for help from Congress, noting in an interview on TV show CBS This Morning that his state has more than 5,000 coronavirus patients in hospitals and not enough money to distribute the much-awaited COVID-19 vaccines that are expected to be available beginning this winter.

Significantly lower amount

US airlines would receive $17bn for four months of payroll support as part of $45bn for the US transportation sector that also includes airports, buses and Amtrak passenger rail, according to two people familiar with the plan.

Overall, Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican, said it contains $560bn in “repurposed” funding from the CARES Act enacted in March, with the remaining $348bn in new money.

The measure includes provisions that Republicans have been pressing for, including new liability protections for businesses and schools grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

But it is far more expensive than the $500bn that McConnell has been advocating.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats would win a central demand with the aid to state and local governments, which face layoffs of front-line workers due to a lack of revenues.

A compromise $300 per week for four months in additional, unemployment benefits would also be in the package, according to the legislators. Democrats had been seeking $600.

Separately, a group of Democratic senators introduced legislation on Tuesday that would extend until October 2021 the $600 per week in jobless benefits for workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

While it is significantly below the $2.2 trillion Pelosi sought in her last offer to the White House before the November 3 elections, the $908bn is for a relatively short period, potentially opening the door to additional requests for money once the Biden administration is in place.

The Trump campaign disputes the election results, though hopes for a different outcome fade as courts strike down legal challenges.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies