Top Democrat, Republican in US Congress say COVID aid vote close

Leaders in the US congress say they believe a vote to pass a $900bn COVID relief package is ‘close’ as deadline looms.

US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she believes a vote is 'close' [Saul Loeb/AFP]

The top Democrat and top Republican in the US Congress on Sunday said separately they believed they were “close” to a vote to pass a $900bn package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Their remarks followed late-night negotiation in which senators from both parties struck a compromise to clear one of the final hurdles, a dispute over Federal Reserve pandemic lending authorities.

The package would include $600 direct payments to individuals and boost unemployment payments by $300 per week unemployment. Congress plans to attach the coronavirus aid package to a $1.4 trillion spending bill funding government programmes through September 2021.

US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the chamber’s top Democrat, told reporters on Sunday she wanted to give members some time to review the package before calling a vote.

“I think we’re close, we’re very close,” Pelosi said. “But we want to have members have enough time to review it all.”

Her Senate counterpart, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told reporters “I think we are really, really close.”

But at least one senior senate Republican said there may not be enough time to pass the measures before a midnight deadline (05:00 GMT Monday), potentially raising the need for yet another continuing resolution to keep the government operating.

Sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Sunday the deal was expected to grant US airlines $15bn in new payroll assistance that will allow them to return more than 32,000 furloughed workers to their payrolls through March 31.

The deal would also include $1bn for passenger railroad Amtrak, $14bn for public transit systems and $10bn for state highways, one of the sources said.

The House of Representatives went into session at noon (17:00 GMT) but quickly went into recess, telling lawmakers to stay nearby and expect votes.

“I do have optimism that it’ll pass,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview on Fox News on Sunday. “I am very hopeful that we get this done today.”

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, said he worried lawmakers would not have enough time to review the deal and vote on it by midnight. “I think it’s doubtful, would be my guess,” he said.

Dispute over Fed

Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, had insisted on language that would guarantee that the central bank could not renew emergency lending programmes for small businesses and state and local governments after December 31, when they expire under the CARES Act COVID-19 relief legislation passed in March.

Republicans had said the programmes are unnecessary government interference in private business that politicises the Fed. They accused Democrats of seeking to extend them into 2021 as a backdoor to provide unchecked funds for state and local governments controlled by members of their party.

Democrats, in turn, accused the Republicans of trying to tie the Fed’s hands in order to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s options for boosting the flagging economy after he takes office on January 20.

The Senate adjourned a rare Saturday session with a call from Republican leader Mitch McConnell to avoid last-minute disagreements that could delay new funding for Americans and small businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks through the US Capitol in Washington, DC [Erin Scott/Reuters]

Republican Senator Mitt Romney said on CNN on Sunday: “I believe there is going to be a deal. There are always sticking points, but the big one was resolved last night … They’re working out some additional points. But I think it’s going to get done. It’ll get done before Christmas.”

San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly told CBS on Sunday that the package would provide much-needed relief for the economy.

“This support is unequivocally beneficial,” Daly said.

In the 11 months since the first cases of the new coronavirus were documented in the US, COVID-19 has killed 311,000 Americans, by far the most in the world, and put millions out of work, with unemployment rising.

Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.

“We’re right within reach,” Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members of her party on a call discussing the negotiations on Saturday, according to a person who was on the call.

Source: Reuters