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Congress approves long-awaited $900 billion Covid rescue package, overcoming months of gridlock

Congress voted Monday evening to approve a far-reaching $900 billion Covid relief package that promises to accelerate vaccine distribution and deliver much-needed aid to small businesses hit hard by the pandemic, Americans who have lost their jobs during the economic upheaval and health care workers on the front lines of the crisis.

The White House has said that President Donald Trump will sign the legislation once it reaches his desk.

Final passage of the aid package came after Hill leaders announced Sunday evening they had finally reached a deal after months of bitter partisan stalemate and days of contentious negotiations that created uncertainty over whether an agreement could be reached at all or if talks would collapse.

The rescue package, which was negotiated on a bipartisan basis, was combined with a massive $1.4 trillion government spending bill to fund federal agencies for the new fiscal year in a 5,593-page bill.

It will include direct payments of up to $600 per adult, enhanced jobless benefits of $300 per week, roughly $284 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans, $25 billion in rental assistance, an extension of the eviction moratorium and $82 billion for schools and colleges.

“We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday night announcing the deal.

A deal was reached only after both parties relinquished some of their key demands along the way to make it happen.

Faced with Republican opposition, Democrats were forced to abandon a push for roughly $160 billion in aid to cash-strapped states and cities, while Republicans dropped a demand for liability protections after Democrats signaled that was a red line.

Democrats are already signaling that they want to see more relief passed in the next session of Congress after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“I consider this a first step and again, more needs to be done,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference Sunday evening.

“That will be happening under the Biden-Harris administration,” she said.

Rank-and-file senators frustrated

Lawmakers were asked to vote on one of the largest rescue packages in American history with virtually no time to read and digest the details. Legislative text for the package was posted online just before 2 p.m. ET Monday, only hours ahead of final votes in both the House and Senate.

Senators in both parties expressed frustration with the process in which the top four congressional leaders cut a deal and let staff from relevant congressional committees iron out the legislative language with leadership aides.

“It’s terrible,” said Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican of Indiana. “You wouldn’t have that kind of format in anything. It means we are putting all of that responsibility in a few.”

There will be no ability to amend the legislation, and lawmakers will be left with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition with the government on the brink of another shutdown at midnight Monday.

“None of that is any good,” Braun said.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, told CNN: “It’s a mockery of legislation.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, was frustrated at how the negotiators agreed to jobless benefits of $300 per week for just 11 weeks — when he and other senators from both parties agreed to a proposal that included 16 weeks of the enhanced benefits. He will have no ability to amend the legislation once the Senate considers it.

“It’s awful,” Manchin said. Asked who he blamed, Manchin said: “I blame all of us for allowing all of this to happen.”

What’s in the relief package

Here are key provisions that will be included as part of the agreement, according to summaries of the legislation released by Democratic and GOP leadership:

  • Direct payment checks of up to $600 per adult and child
  • Aid for struggling small businesses, including more than $284 billion for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and $15 billion “in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions”
  • $300 per week for enhanced unemployment insurance benefits
  • $20 billion to buy vaccines and make “the vaccine available at no charge for anyone who needs it” and $8 billion for vaccine distribution
  • $20 billion for coronavirus testing efforts
  • $25 billion for rental assistance and an eviction moratorium extension
  • $82 billion for education providers like schools and colleges, including aid to help reopen classrooms safely and $10 billion for child care assistance
  • The deal will rescind “$429 billion in unused funds provided by the CARES Act for the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending facilities”
  • $13 billion in increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and child nutrition benefits
  • $7 billion to bolster broadband access to help Americans connect remotely during the pandemic
  • $45 billion to support transportation services, including $2 billion for airports, $1 billion for Amtrak and $16 billion for “another round of airline employee and contractor payroll support”
  • A tax credit “to support employers offering paid sick leave”

Congress drops $500 million for states to bolster election security from final spending package

Congressional negotiators dropped $500 million for states to bolster their election security after opposition from Republicans during closed-door talks over the massive 2021 spending package steaming through Congress, according to Democrats involved in the matter.

Democrats tried to include $500 million in election assistance grants to states to improve their election infrastructure. But Senate Republicans objected to including the money — and the provision was ultimately excluded. The funding was included in a House-passed appropriations bill but not the Senate’s version of the measure.

Republicans in the past have argued such money is duplicative, but Democrats contend that it is critical to safeguard future elections — and also note that it’s Trump himself who has questioned the reliability of the election systems.

Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat who chairs a key House appropriations subcommittee and has championed the money, raised concerns that the funding did not make into the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package.

“It’s an amazing disconnect,” Quigley told CNN. “We want it because of foreign interference and to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the system.”

Quigley added: “Their President is complaining about all this, but his party killed any chance … to protect these systems going forward in the future as the equipment gets older and older.”

Aides to McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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