Congress passes massive ‘first step’ in pandemic relief with $900B package

By: - December 21, 2020 6:42 pm

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

WASHINGTON — Congress on Monday night cleared and sent to President Donald Trump the first major COVID-19 relief measure since the spring, a sprawling spending bill that would provide $900 billion in pandemic-related aid but still didn’t go far enough for many Democrats.

House leaders divided the bill into two parts and passed the emergency relief portion on a 359-53 vote. Another portion, which included Pentagon spending for the coming year, passed 327-85. The Senate combined the two bills and cleared the package in an overwhelming 92-6 vote shortly before 11 p.m. CT. The White House has signaled Trump will sign the 5,593-page measure.

The bipartisan measure that ended months of haggling would extend an array of long-sought assistance, including direct payments to Americans of $600; an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits; and billions more in loans to struggling small businesses.

It also would send nearly $9 billion to states to aid in vaccine distribution and $22 billion for more coronavirus testing and tracing. The measure contains billions more in child care assistance, help for schools, food aid and money for farmers; transportation funding; rental assistance and an extension of the eviction moratorium; and an end to surprise billing in emergency and scheduled care.

It doesn’t provide additional aid sought by state and local governments struggling with massive budget gaps, nor the liability protections sought for employers who may face COVID 19-related lawsuits if employees become infected with the virus. The measure also doesn’t extend the suspension of student loan interest and payments that will expire at the end of January.

That stimulus bill was sandwiched into a broader piece of legislation totaling $1.4 trillion that pays for federal government operations for the rest of the fiscal year, and was under debate in Congress just hours ahead of another deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

While the fiscal 2021 government operations will be funded through September, congressional Democrats described the emergency pandemic aid as only a small piece of what’s needed to address the ongoing crisis.

Millions of Americans remain on the unemployment rolls and the state-based vaccine distribution efforts have barely begun, while rising case counts have led to a new wave of restrictions on businesses and gatherings across the country.

“I would hope that as we see the need for what we have done in this nearly $900 billion legislation that we’ll vote on today that everyone understands it’s a first step,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a floor speech Monday. “It’s a first step, as President-elect Biden has said. It’s a first step, and we will need to do more.”

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa supported the bill. “Even with the news of vaccine distribution and success, the pandemic is still far from over, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This legislation will help us reach that end,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, called the legislation a “long-overdue measure” that will help Iowans in need.

“While this is an important agreement that helps keep our government open and fund long-term investments that will help recovery and growth of our nation, the emergency COVID-19 provisions of this bill are still only short-term relief,” Axne said in a news release. “This cannot and should not be Congress’ last act to help those suffering through dual health and economic crises – and when the 117th Congress begins in just a few short weeks, I look forward to working with my colleagues in both parties to continue the important work of supporting our constituents.”

Rep. Abby Finkenauer also supported the package while lamenting that Congress wasn’t doing more.

“While I’m happy to have helped pass a deal to help folks just before the holidays, this package will not come close to undoing the pain this year has brought — especially to those who have lost loved ones,” Finkenauer said in a statement. “The package passed today provides, to an extent, urgently needed help for families, small businesses and so many Iowans struggling under the hardships caused by this pandemic. However, stimulus checks should be higher, and more support given directly to Iowans who need it most.”

Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack also supported the package. Republican Rep. Steve King did not record a vote.

The relief package is the first major aid legislation to reach President Donald Trump since the CARES Act was approved in March, due to months of stalemate over the scope of another aid package. The Democratic-controlled House approved several additional relief measures, but those proposals did not advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Republicans have cast blame on Democrats in that chamber for blocking aid proposals, while Democrats argued that those alternative bills did not go far enough.

In touting the new relief bill Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the measure’s price tag, saying it requires less than $350 billion in new spending because more than half a trillion dollars in previously approved spending is being repurposed.

“No sprawling left-wing wish list. No unconstrained bailouts for state and local governments, with no connection to COVID needs. Just smart, targeted, bipartisan policies,” McConnell said, adding that the bill will do an “incredible amount of good.”

A deal on the pandemic relief bill appeared in sight late last week, but those talks stretched through the weekend due to disagreement over a provision sought by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to ensure that several temporary Federal Reserve lending programs will end this year.

Democrats objected to the provision, arguing that the language he sought was too broad and could overly constrain the Fed’s authority. Negotiators worked over several days to narrow the language sought by Toomey, clarifying which programs would wind down at the end of the year.

The bill’s full text was only released early Monday afternoon, just hours before House lawmakers launched debate on the measure.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who was not on Capitol Hill for the vote due to a potential exposure to COVID-19, bemoaned the quick turnaround, blasting the bill as “flawed in both its content as well as its process.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado said he “would certainly prefer for legislators to have 24 hours to consider legislation, particularly of this scope and size.”

“But obviously, there are exigent circumstances at present today in the urgency of this crisis,” Neguse added.

Trump was expected to sign the measure Monday night.

President-elect Joe Biden released a statement Sunday evening in support of the emergency relief bill, saying it “will deliver critical resources to fight COVID-19.”

“But this action in the lame duck session is just the beginning. Our work is far from over,” Biden added.

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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.