Congress seals agreement on USD900 billion COVID relief bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal on a USD900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them.

The package drew votes in Congress yesterday, establishing a temporary USD300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a USD600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, healthcare providers and renters facing eviction.

It came together on Sunday after months of battling and posturing, but the negotiating dynamic changed in Republicans’ favour after the election and as the end of the congressional session neared. United States (US) President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted this fall.

Biden praised the bipartisan spirit that produced the measure, which he called “just the beginning”.

“This is a model for the challenging work ahead for our nation,” Biden said on Sunday in a statement.

House leaders informed lawmakers that they voted on the legislation yesterday, and the Senate voted yesterday, too. Lawmakers were eager to leave Washington and close out a tumultuous year.

“There will be another major rescue package for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said in announcing the agreement for the relief bill. “It is packed with targetted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”

Democrats acknowledged it wasn’t as robust a relief package as they initially sought — or, they say, the country needs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed more to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“It is a first step,” she said. “We have to do more.”

A fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers was resolved on Saturday night by the Senate’s top Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, and conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. That breakthrough led to a final round of negotiations on Sunday.

Still, delays in finalising the agreement prompted the House to pass a one-day stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at midnight on Sunday. The final agreement would be the largest spending measure yet. It combined USD900 billion for COVID-19 relief with a USD1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure and education. The government-wide funding would keep the government open through September.

Passage neared as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked and evidence piled up that the economy was struggling. The legislation had been held up by months of dysfunction, posturing and bad faith. But talks turned serious in recent days as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline of acting before leaving Washington for the holidays.

“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,” Schumer told reporters. “Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what’s going on in America.”