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Congress reaches deal on COVID aid package

All Americans, including children, will get a one-time $600 stimulus payment.

A flag flies outside the U.S. Capitol Building. (STOCK PHOTO)

Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal late Sunday on a nearly $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package. There have been negotiations on a package since May with efforts to finalize a deal before the August recess, before the November election and before Thanksgiving all failing. But it appears that a deal is in place before Christmas and will be voted on by Monday. The deal also includes an agreement to keep the government funded through September, avoiding a government shutdown at midnight.

“For months, Senate Republicans have been calling for another targeted package to reopen the job-saving Paycheck Protection Program, extend federal unemployment benefits, fund K-12 schools, fund vaccine distribution, and get a lot more help onto the front lines as fast as possible,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Sunday. “Our bipartisan, bicameral discussions on another major pandemic rescue package continued all night and all morning. We are winnowing down the remaining differences. I believe I can speak for all sides when I say that I hope and expect to have a final agreement nailed down in a matter of hours.”

The final agreement combines a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package with a $1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure and education. The omnibus funding portion will keep the government open through September.

“This bill is a good bill. Tonight is a good night. But it is not the end of the story; it is not the end of the job,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters. “Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what’s going on in America.”

The unemployed will receive a $300 per week bonus jobless benefit, half the supplemental benefit under the $1.8 billion CARES Act passed in March. That will begin on Dec. 27 and expire in 11 weeks. More 20 million Americans are currently getting some form of unemployment assistance.

All Americans, including children, will get a one-time $600 stimulus payment subject to income limits in which an individual’s payment begins to phase out after $75,000. The stimulus disappears after $99,000. A family of four under the income limit would get $2,400.

Republicans insisted on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion to cover a second round of PPP grants for hard-hit businesses.

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Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced that the bill also includes $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for childcare.

“Yesterday evening, our Democratic colleagues agreed to important language authored by the junior Senator for Pennsylvania, Senator Toomey,” McConnell continued. “Back in March, in the CARES Act, Congress funded several new emergency lending facilities, to be operated by the Federal Reserve. Their purpose was simple: To backstop the basic foundations of our economy and prevent any kind of sweeping financial paralysis. Our actions worked. The other historic relief that Congress passed, combined with the existence of these lending facilities, staved off any systemic collapse.”

Democrats say that the package is an initial step. “In 31 days, when Joe Biden enters the White House, more help will be on the way,” Pelosi said. To get President Donald Trump’s signature, the funding includes one last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“When we get this done, Congress will not deserve any special praise,” McConnell said. “Not with this relief having waited until late December; and not with some of our Democratic colleagues openly saying the reason they finally changed their tune was that they got a President-elect of their own party. When we finalize this measure and pass it, Congress will only have done our job. We will have finally done our duty in getting more relief to those who need it most. Let’s make today the day we join together, put differences aside, and finally get it done.”

The funding bill also includes a 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. It also extends soon-to-expire tax breaks, including one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers. There is $7 billion to increase access to broadband and $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people.

Democrats gave up their demand to provide fiscal relief to states and local governments but did get $22 billion to help states and local governments with COVID-19-related health expenses like testing and vaccines.

Other major provisions include:

  • Citizens who get stuck with surprise medical bills when their healthcare providers drop out of health insurance networks got some relief in this package.
  • Language ensuring that churches and faith-based organizations are eligible for PPP loans.
  • Businesses that received PPP loans and had them forgiven will be allowed to deduct the costs covered by those loans on their federal tax returns.
  • $20 billion for targeted grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program.
  • A White House proposal for a tax break for corporate meal expenses denounced by Democrats as the “three-martini lunch.” Trump promoted the tax break as a way to revive the struggling restaurant industry.
  • Some PPP funds were reserved for “very small” businesses, as well as lending through community-based lenders and minority depository institutions.
  • The agreement extends until Jan. 31 a moratorium on evictions that was slated to expire at the end of the year. The incoming Biden administration can extend the deadline further.
  • $25 billion in emergency assistance for renters.
  • $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines “that will make the vaccine available at no charge for anyone who needs it.” It also provides $8 billion for vaccine distribution and $20 billion to assist states with testing.
  • Pelosi and Schumer said that billions were “reserved specifically for combating the disparities facing communities of color, and to support our heroic health care workers and providers.”
  • Colleges and schools will receive $82 billion to help cover HVAC repair and replacement to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections and reopen classrooms. The Republican summary specified $2.75 billion in designated funds for private K-12 education.
  • The package includes a tax credit to support employers offering paid sick leave; $13 billion in increased food stamps and nutrition benefits.
  • The bill including $16 billion for another round of airline employee and contractor payroll support; $14 billion for transit; $10 billion for highways; $2 billion for intercity buses; $2 billion for airports; and $1 billion for Amtrak.

In a significant move, the bill also extends the deadline for states and cities to use unspent money approved for them by the CARES Act.

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The package does not include hazard pay for essential workers. The bill does not extend stimulus checks to adult dependents. It also does not include a COVID-19 liability shield that Republicans had wanted. That point was dropped in one of the last roadblocks to getting a bipartisan deal.

The House is expected to vote on this bill Monday followed by a vote in the Senate.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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