After months of partisan conflict, the United States Congress has approved a nearly $900bn emergency spending bill to tackle to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 relief bill provides $284bn for loans to small business to keep workers employed and $166bn for $600 one-time payments to most US citizens among other measures.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the US Congress, called the bill “a first step” towards giving incoming President-elect Joe Biden the resources needed to “crush the virus”.
The House approved the measure by a vote of 359-53 and the Senate voted 91-7 to send the bill to President Donald Trump who is expected to sign it.
Terms of the bill were agreed in marathon negotiations among congressional leaders and the White House that ended with agreement over the weekend.
Among the provisions in the bill, it provides $3.36bn for GAVI, the international vaccine alliance, a partnership of the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the World Bank and the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that provides vaccines to people in low-income countries.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a US television interview the Treasury Department would be sending out $600 checks to US citizens as soon as next week.
“It’s money that gets recirculated in the economy, so people go out and spend this money and that helps small business and that helps getting more people back to work,” Mnuchin told broadcaster CNBC.
The bill includes short term unemployment benefits, aid for the US airline industry, funding for vaccine distribution and help for urban and poor communities hit hardest by the virus.
It does not go as far as a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package the House approved in May that was rejected by Republicans who control the US Senate.
Among the sticking points, Democrats had sought $160bn in federal bailout funding for states and localities now seeing budget shortfalls because of precipitous declines in tax revenue from virus-related economic slowdowns.
Democrats and labour unions opposed a liability shield against COVID-19 related lawsuits that corporate interests and the Republicans wanted. The liability shield and funding for states and localities were left out of the compromise bill.
The legislation was attached to a larger, must-pass $1.4 trillion spending fiscal 2021 measure providing funding for the US government.
Biden in a statement applauded the bipartisan deal in Congress and called it “a lifeline” for millions of US citizens struggling with the pandemic. And he signalled he will be asking Congress for more funding to address the virus when he takes office on January 20
“Our work is far from over,” Biden said.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat, called the bill “woefully incomplete” and said: “This package must be viewed only as a down payment”.
The COVID-19 relief bill extends a federal ban on evictions until the end of January and provides $25bn in rental assistance to families struggling to pay rent.
Enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $600 a month that were set to expire at year-end were reduced to $300 a month and extended through the end of March.
It provides $82bn in funding for colleges and schools, including support for repair and replacement of heating and air-conditioning systems and mitigation steps needed to prevent transmission of the virus.
It also provides $45bn for public transportation agencies, including $4bn for the New York City subway and bus system.
And it includes $15bn in dedicated funding for live entertainment venues, independent movie theatres and cultural institutions that have been forced to close during the pandemic. The COVID-19 bill draws $500bn of its total of $892bn in funding by repurposing money authorised by Congress in a $2.2 trillion bill passed in March.
More than 319,000 people have died and more than 18 million have been infected by of the coronavirus in the US, making it the US the world’s worst-hit by the pandemic, according global data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.