Congress close to emergency relief deal including direct payments, added unemployment benefits

By: - December 16, 2020 5:35 pm

The U.S. Capitol building. (Photo by Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

WASHINGTON — A coronavirus relief deal appeared within reach late Wednesday following months of stalemate in Congress, potentially providing much-needed help to Americans facing expiring unemployment benefits and states distributing the new COVID-19 vaccine.

A final deal also may include another round of direct payments. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., suggested to reporters that those checks would be around $600 to $700 for each American.

Two provisions that aren’t expected to make it into the agreement are the most contentious ones: $160 billion targeted to state and local governments, which was sought by Democrats, and a GOP-backed proposal to protect employers from COVID-19-related lawsuits by workers who get sick.

Top congressional leaders met late into the night Tuesday, negotiating details of an accord expected to reflect much of a $900 billion proposal that a bipartisan group of lawmakers put forward earlier this month.

That proposal called for, among other provisions, extended emergency unemployment benefits; eviction protections; the suspension of student loan payments; additional loans for small businesses, and added funding for food assistance, child care support and coronavirus testing centers and vaccine distribution.

The economic relief potentially would accompany a must-pass stopgap spending bill that would avert a shutdown of the government on Friday.

“We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of Tuesday’s late-night negotiating session, adding that congressional leaders “are going to keep working until we get it done.”

“It’s not a done deal yet, but we are very close,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  said Wednesday morning.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Wednesday the pricetag of the bipartisan proposal was “a heck of a lot more fiscally responsible” than previous Democratic plans.

As the pandemic has raged this year, more than 306,000 Americans have died, and nearly 17 million have tested positive for COVID-19.

Without an extension of unemployment benefits, some 12 million people are expected to stop receiving aid checks at the end of the month, and millions could face eviction as that protection expires.

The Trump administration did extend a suspension of student loan payments, though that relief only stretches through January.

A coronavirus relief bill has not passed both chambers of Congress since the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has approved several additional relief bills, but the GOP-controlled Senate has not passed those measures or major pandemic assistance measures since the spring.

President-elect Joe Biden described the emerging consensus on Capitol Hill around another COVID relief package as “encouraging,” but only a “down payment” on the assistance that needs to be approved.

Biden later told a virtual gathering of governors that the deal is “not likely to deal with the two contentious issues that I feel very strongly about,” state and local funding and insurance liability.

Biden earlier this week made supportive comments about a bipartisan proposal that included state and local aid and liability protections.

Several Democratic senators also said they would continue to push for more support to state and local governments.

“There was nothing magic about December 31. Almost all these states have July 1 to June 30 fiscal years,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Wednesday, adding that proposals under discussion would address the most urgent problems.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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