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Congress passes $2.3T coronavirus relief, government funding deal

Congress passes $2.3T coronavirus relief, government funding deal

by JORDAIN CARNEY | The Hill  |  Published on December 22, 2020

Congress passed a sweeping year-end bill to provide long-delayed coronavirus relief and fund the government, capping off a months-long fight for more assistance.

The Senate voted 92-6 on the $2.3 trillion package, which includes $1.4 trillion to fund the government and $900 billion in coronavirus relief, the first time Congress has passed additional aid since April.

The bill, which passed the House earlier Monday, now goes to President Trump’s desk, where he has until Dec. 28 to sign it.

Passage of the bill follows growing pressure for Congress to act before wrapping up its work for the year as cases of coronavirus are steadily spiking, states and cities are reinstating lockdown measures, and public health officials are warning of a brutal winter even as two vaccines are starting to be administered.

“None of us think this legislation is perfect, but a big bipartisan majority of us recognize the incredible amount of good it will do when we send it to the president’s desk. The American people have waited long enough. I’m glad for our country that we’re now moving ahead together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday ahead of the vote.

The mammoth package, which totaled 5,593 pages, wasn’t publicly released until just hours before the Senate’s vote. The combined omnibus-coronavirus legislation is among the largest spending bills ever considered by Congress.

The coronavirus relief portion of the bill doesn’t include the biggest priorities for Republicans and Democrats — liability protections and more money for state and local governments, respectively.

But it does include $284 billion for another round of small business aid through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a $300-per-week federal unemployment boost for 11 weeks, a round of $600 stimulus checks for those making up to $75,000, more money for schools and hospitals, and an extension of an eviction moratorium.

The government funding portion includes $1.375 billion for 56 miles for Trump’s border wall, $5 million to create a database to track police misconduct, $153 million for programs to improve community relations with police, and a 3 percent pay raise for the military and a 1 percent pay raise for the civilian federal workforce.

Because it’s the final package passing Congress this year, it’s emerged as a legislative Christmas tree for unrelated items, including greenlighting the American Latino and women’s history museums, a long-stalled energy bill, a proposal ending surprise medical billing, and a provision helping states eradicate the so-called murder hornet.

The White House has said Trump will sign the deal, with spokesman Ben Williamson saying that the president “has pushed hard for months to send Americans badly needed financial relief.”

Trump has until Dec. 28 to sign the bill after Congress passed, and he approved, a seven-day continuing resolution (CR). The stopgap is being used as a backstop to make sure there isn’t a shutdown while Congress delivers the bill to the White House heading into the holidays.

It was not guaranteed that Congress would be able to get a deal following months of gridlock between congressional Democrats and the White House and even at times disagreements between Senate Republicans and the White House.

The House passed a $3.4 trillion coronavirus relief bill in May and a slimmed down $2.2 trillion bill in October, neither of which was taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, Senate GOP leadership, after hitting “pause” for months, offered a $1.1 trillion package that was immediately panned from within the caucus, with McConnell predicting he could lose up to 20 GOP senators. It was never given a vote. The GOP leader then offered two roughly $500 billion packages, which failed upon party lines.

Talks between Democrats and the White House broke down shortly before the election and were stuck in a stalemate when a bipartisan, bicameral group, frustrated with the inability for leadership to break a deal, began talks in mid-November that stretched over dinner meetings and Zoom calls.

“It was just a month ago, I was reminded — Nov. 17, apparently — that I had an opportunity to invite some colleagues over to my house for dinner and conversation. And while it wasn’t pizza, it didn’t make any difference what we were eating. It was all about the conversation and what we could do to be responsive to the urgency of the need,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“When we presented the multihundred-page package to the public, to the administration, to leadership, we basically said, ‘Here is a gift. Take it,'” she added.

The group — composed of members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus and centrist senators including Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Murkowski — offered a $908 billion package divided into two sections. The first $748 billion piece included widely accepted ideas such as PPP aid and school and vaccine funding.

The second piece included $160 billion for state and local funding and liability protections. In underscoring their politically tricky nature, Manchin was the only Senate Democrat from the group to support the second piece.

Leadership has credited the bipartisan group with helping break the stalemate by prodding it toward the areas that garnered broad support.

The final deal dropped those two most contentious pieces as part of a frenzy of around-the-clock negotiations that started in earnest on Tuesday, Dec. 15, when McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) met twice in the Capitol, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin phoning in.

By Wednesday morning, leadership appeared close, but talks dragged on for days amid several hang-ups, requiring Congress to pass a two-day CR on Friday night to buy itself more time until Sunday night. A deal was struck on the final snag — emergency lending facilities under the Federal Reserve — on Friday night.

In a boon to Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — who emerged as an eleventh-hour odd couple — coronavirus aid will include a second round of stimulus checks, which Mnuchin said some Americans could receive starting next week. Though the checks are half of the $1,200 the duo was pushing for, neither McConnell’s latest proposal nor the bipartisan package included a second round of checks.

Leadership announced a deal on the overall package early Sunday evening, though printing and computer errors delayed release of the text on Monday, with the down-to-the-wire effort sparking pushback.

“The squad” — a coalition of progressives that includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — voted against the rule setting up the House’s debate on the package.

“This is why Congress needs time to actually read this package before voting on it. Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours. This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday.

Meanwhile, fiscal hawks in the Senate grumbled over the burst in year-end spending.

“We are $27 trillion in debt today. How do we expect a child to have the economic opportunity when this crushing debt is their inheritance from Congress?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech.

Congress is already turning its attention to the fight next year over a potential sixth package.

Democratic leadership is characterizing the package that passed Monday as a “down payment,” pledging that they will push for more after Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.

“We advance this bill today as a first step. We have new hope which springs from the vaccine and from the commitment President-elect Biden has to following science. We are ready for the next step,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to Democrats shortly before Monday’s vote.

But there’s no guarantee more help is on the way or that they’ll be able to get an agreement that resolves the thorny fights on state and local money and protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Which party will control the Senate next year will be determined by the two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5.

McConnell is already doubling down on his red line that any coronavirus legislation in 2021 will have to include liability protections — a demand viewed as anathema to Democrats who worry it will hollow out worker safety standards.

“I think liability relief is really important,” McConnell said during a Fox News interview Monday. “And if there is another coronavirus relief bill after the first year of the year, I’m going to insist that liability protection for these universities and healthcare providers is a part of it.”

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