US Congress nears deal on $900bn COVID-19 relief bill

Talks continue on emergency support for jobless workers, struggling businesses as pandemic worsens and a deadline looms

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi postponed Democrats' plans for US bailouts for state and local governments to next year [Erin Scott/Reuters]

Republicans and Democrats in the United States Congress are nearing an agreement with the Trump White House on a COVID-19 relief package to aid Americans still struggling through the pandemic.

The bill, valued at $900bn, is expected to provide for one-time payments of about $600 to individuals, subsidies to small businesses, $300-a-week jobless benefits and funding for vaccine distribution.

“The finish line is in sight,” Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat said as details of the legislation were being hammered out.

“Everyone wants to get this done. Let’s push through the few final metres and deliver the outcome that the American people very much need,” Schumer said in remarks to the Senate.

Politicians are racing to pass the legislation as the already severe coronavirus pandemic in the US worsens amid a third wave of infections and deaths.

More than 306,000 people have died and 16.9 million have been infected in 2020, according to Johns Hopkins University. The daily death toll in the US topped 3,000 for the first time on December 15.

Recovery in reverse

Meanwhile, the nation’s modest economic recovery that began earlier this year has begun to reverse amid new shutdowns.

An estimated 10 million of the 22 million people who lost jobs in March and April remain out of work. Without action by Congress, jobless benefits and restrictions on evictions are set to expire.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (centre) cited ‘major headway’ on COVID-19 relief talks at the US Capitol in Washington, on December 16, 2020. [Erin Scott/Reuters]

“It is no secret that right now, at this moment in America, we face the worst set of crises that this country has seen for perhaps 100 years,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist who votes with Democrats in the Senate.

Specific terms of the legislation were still being negotiated by congressional leaders from both parties with representatives of President Donald Trump.

“We’re trying to help. We’re trying to give a pathway forward, to bring our economy back, to make sure that we’re able to” said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat and leader of a bipartisan group that helped break the deadlock.

“People are going to lose their lifelines,” Manchin said in Senate remarks.

“There’s so much more that has to be done. And there’s so much more need out there.”

The bill is modelled on a bipartisan $908bn proposal produced by Republican senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Bill Cassidy and Mitt Romney and Democrats Manchin, Mark Warner, Richard Durbin, Jeanne Shaheen.

House of Representatives members Republican Tom Reid and Democrat Josh Gottheimer participated in the effort.

With President Trump still fighting the November election results and Republicans and Democrats deadlocked, the bipartisan group began discussing short-term legislative solutions that could be passed by Congress, Manchin said.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin began talking last week with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the two key leadership figures in Congress.

‘Major headway’

Negotiators were still haggling late on Wednesday over details of the COVID-19 aid bill which is expected to include stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits, the Reuters news agency reported.

“We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package,” McConnell said, according to Reuters.

“We need vaccine distribution money, we need to re-up the Paycheck Protection Program to save jobs, we need to continue to provide for laid-off Americans,” he said.

The group reached a broad agreement on principles in a late-night meeting on December 15 and faces a December 18 deadline to pass the legislation in both chambers.

“The American people have repeatedly called on Congress to provide support for those hit hardest by this pandemic, and we simply cannot and will not let them down,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Republican who warned of “ghost towns” across the country if Congress does not provide support for small businesses.

The final terms of the deal remain to be seen. Senator Sanders said a draft proposal circulating among aides did not go far enough to help working families struggling with job losses and said he would push for more money.

“There simply is not enough money in the proposal to deal with the unprecedented crises that we now face,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he would push to increase the cheques to individuals from $600 to $1,200 per person.

President-elect Joe Biden, speaking to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, said the stimulus talks in Congress were “encouraging”.

“Looks like they’re very, very close,” Biden said.

But it is just a “down payment”, he said, on a larger COVID-19 response measure that Biden will ask Congress to approve after he takes office on January 20.

Source: Al Jazeera