Talks continue on emergency support for jobless workers, struggling businesses as pandemic worsens and a deadline looms
United States lawmakers plan to work through the weekend to try to avoid a government shutdown, as efforts in Congress to reach a compromise on multibillion-dollar COVID-19 relief legislation stalled on Friday.
The US House of Representatives and the US Senate voted in favour of extending a federal funding deadline by two days, until midnight on Sunday, while negotiators continue work on the $900bn COVID-19 bill.
The stopgap bill would temporarily extend US government funding that was set to run out at midnight on Friday. It must be signed into law by President Donald Trump to avert a partial government shutdown.
Legislators plan to attach the COVID-19 relief bill to a must-pass, $1.4 trillion government funding package before leaving Washington for the year.
“The American people urgently need coronavirus relief, and this short stopgap bill will allow bipartisan, bicameral negotiators to complete their work on this important issue,” said House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita M Lowey, a Democrat, about the bill.
After it appeared a compromise deal was near earlier in the week, tensions rose in the US Capitol as back-and-forth manoeuvres among Republicans and Democrats created new obstacles to the emergency COVID-19 relief bill.
“I am so frustrated by the inability of us to act like adults, with responsibility,” House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.
If an agreement is reached, Hoyer said the House would be ready to vote on the relief and spending measures on Sunday afternoon.
The Trump White House threw its weight behind a proposal pushed by Republican Senator Pat Toomey to restrict the Federal Reserve from using billions in US Treasury Department funds to provide emergency loans to the private sector.
Larry Kudlow, a Trump economic adviser, told reporters that the White House is “strongly in support” of the proposal.
But Democrats said they feared it would hamper US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration’s ability to respond to the economic crisis gripping the US.
Senator Elizabeth Warren called the demand “outrageous” and said in a series of tweets that “Republicans were playing political games to sabotage President Biden”.
After denying meaningful relief for months, Republicans are now attempting to cut off one of the only sources of funding that can help mom & pop stores keep the lights on and prevent teachers, firefighters, and other public workers from getting laid off.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 18, 2020
Meanwhile, a separate fight broke out in the Senate over a bipartisan bid by Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, to increase the amount of stimulus cheques to be sent to individual Americans to $1,200 from $600.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson blocked the Hawley-Sanders proposal, drawing a rebuke from Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, who called Johnson’s opposition “ludicrous”.
“Over the course of this pandemic, working Americans have taken it on the chin. Millions have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” said Schumer, who supports giving US citizens more money.
Sending individuals $1,200 cheques “could mean the difference between Americans paying rent or not, affording groceries or not, the difference between hanging on until the vaccine helps our country get back to normal”, Schumer said.
House and Senate leaders have been negotiating details of the $900bn relief bill around the clock for days as the US witnesses a worsening spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths.
The country has recorded more than 17.3 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, and more than 312,800 deaths linked to the novel coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
More than 10 million people who lost their jobs since the US outbreak began still remain out of work.