US Congress averts shutdown; fight continues over pandemic aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — United States (US) Congress passed a two-day stopgap spending bill on Friday night, averting a partial government shutdown and buying yet more time for frustratingly slow endgame negotiations on an almost USD1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package.

The virus aid talks remained on track, both sides said, but closing out final disagreements was proving difficult. Weekend sessions were on tap, and House leaders hoped for a vote today on the massive package, which wraps much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished 2020 business into a take-it-or-leave-it behemoth that promises to be a foot thick — or more.

The House passed the temporary funding bill by a 320-60 vote. The Senate approved it by voice vote almost immediately afterward, and US President Donald Trump signed it late Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said both sides remain intent on closing the deal, even as Democrats launched a concerted campaign to block an effort by Republicans to rein in emergency Federal Reserve lending powers. The Democrats said the GOP proposal would deprive President-elect Joe Biden of crucial tools to manage the economy.

Negotiations continued into Friday night, lawmakers and aides said. House lawmakers were told they wouldn’t have to report to work on yesterday but that today’s session was likely.

The Senate will be voting on nominations.

The USD900 billion package came as the pandemic was delivering its most fearsome surge yet, killing more than 3,000 victims per day and straining the nation’s healthcare system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AP

While vaccines were on the way, most people won’t get them for months.

The emerging agreement would deliver more than USD300 billion in aid to businesses and provide the unemployed a USD300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit and renewal of state benefits that would otherwise expire right after December 25.

It also included USD600 direct payments to individuals; vaccine distribution funds and money for renters, schools, the Postal Service and people needing food aid.

Democrats on Friday came out swinging at a key obstacle: a provision by conservative Senator Pat Toomey, that would close down more than USD400 billion in potential Federal Reserve lending powers established under a relief bill in March.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is shutting down the programmes at the end of December, but Toomey’s language goes further, by barring the Fed from restarting the lending next year, and Democrats said the provision would tie Biden’s hands and put the economy at risk.

“As we navigate through an unprecedented economic crisis, it is in the interests of the American people to maintain the Federal’s ability to respond quickly and forcefully,” said Biden economic adviser Brian Deese. “Undermining that authority could mean less lending to Main Street businesses, higher unemployment and greater economic pain across the nation.”

The Federal programmes at issue provided loans to small and mid-sized businesses and bought state and local government bonds, making it easier for those governments to borrow, at a time when their finances were under pressure from the pandemic.

The Fed would need the support of the Treasury Department to restart the programmes, which Biden’s Treasury secretary nominee, Janet Yellen, a former Federal chair, would likely provide.

Treasury could also provide funds to backstop those programmes without congressional approval and could ease the lending requirements. That could encourage more lending under the programmes, which have seen only limited use so far.

Friday opened on an optimistic note after the talks appeared stalled for much of Thursday.

The pending bill is the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act passed virtually unanimously in March, delivering USD1.8 trillion in aid, more generous USD600 per week bonus unemployment benefits and USD1,200 direct payments to individuals.

The COVID-19 package would be added to a USD1.4 trillion government-wide appropriations bill that would fund federal agencies through next September. That measure is likely to provide a last USD1.4 billion instalment for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature.

For Republicans, the most important COVID-19 aid provision was a long-sought second round of “paycheck protection” payments to especially hard-hit businesses and renewal of soon-to-expire state jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.