U.S. Congress finalizing COVID-19 aid package, but votes not yet set

By Andy Sullivan and David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican and Democratic leaders in U.S. Congress on Sunday said they were on the verge of finalizing a $ 900 billion package to provide the first new aid in months to a pandemic-ravaged economy, but it did remained unclear when they would vote to finalize the contract.
Her remarks followed nightly negotiations in which senators from both parties reached a compromise to overcome one of the final hurdles, a dispute over the Federal Reserve's pandemic lending agency.
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The package would be the second largest economic stimulus in US history after a $ 2.3 trillion relief bill was passed in March. The deal comes when the pandemic accelerates and infects more than 214,000 people in the country each day. More than 317,000 Americans have already died.
The package would provide $ 600 in direct payments to individuals, add $ 300 per week to unemployment benefits, and provide hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid to small businesses. It would also provide $ 25 billion in rental assistance, sources said.
Congress intends to include the coronavirus relief package in a $ 1.4 trillion spending bill to fund government programs by September 2021.
A senior Senate Republican said there may not be enough time to pass the measures before the state funds expire at midnight (5 a.m. GMT Monday), which means lawmakers would have to pass another temporary extension to that To keep government going.
U.S. House of Representatives spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, the chamber's top Democrat, told reporters on Sunday that she wanted to give members some time to review the package before calling a vote.
"I think we are close, we are very close," said Pelosi. "But we want members to have enough time to check everything."
Her counterpart, Republican Senate Chairman Mitch McConnell, told reporters, "I think we're very, very close."
The bill leaves out two of the most controversial elements in the negotiations: legal protection for coronavirus coronavirus lawsuits filed by Republicans, and substantial aid to state and local governments advocated by Democrats.
Senate Democratic chairman Chuck Schumer said Congress will seek further relief next year. "This bill will not be the last word on COVID relief in Congress," he said in the Senate.
Sources informed on the matter told Reuters on Sunday that U.S. airlines are expected to receive $ 15 billion in new payroll aid that will allow them to return more than 32,000 workers on leave to their payroll by March 31.
It would also include $ 1 billion for the Amtrak passenger railroad, $ 14 billion for public transportation systems, and $ 10 billion for state highways, one of the sources said. Another $ 3.2 billion would help give poor Americans broadband internet access.
Legislators also tried to resolve disagreements over education funding.
EXPECT VOTES?
The House entered the session at 12:00 PM CET (1700 GMT) but quickly paused, telling lawmakers to stay close and await votes.
"I'm optimistic it will happen," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview on Fox News' Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo program. "I am very hopeful that we can do it today."
Senator John Cornyn, the Chamber's No. 2 Republican, said lawmakers may not be able to vote on the deal until midnight.
"I think it's doubtful, I'd guess," he said.
Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, had insisted on language that would guarantee the Federal Reserve would not be able to revive the emergency loan programs for small businesses and state and local governments after they expired on December 31st.
Republicans had said the programs were unnecessary government interference in the private sector. They accused the Democrats of wanting to extend it until 2021 to provide unchecked funding for state and local governments controlled by members of their party.
Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of attempting to tie the hands of the Fed in an attempt to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's ability to fuel the ailing economy after taking office on Jan. 20.
The two sides agreed on a language that would allow the current program to be renewed but would not block the creation of similar programs.
Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, told CBS 'Face the Nation on Sunday that the package would bring much-needed relief to the economy.
"That support is clearly an advantage," said Daly.
In the eleven months since the first cases of the new coronavirus were documented in the United States, COVID-19 has left millions of Americans unemployed and unemployment has risen. Economists say growth is likely to remain sluggish until vaccines become widespread by mid-2021. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
(Additional reporting by David Lawder, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey, Idress Ali and Daniel Burns; editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Shumaker and Sonya Hepinstall)
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