Image: US Capitol Building. Source: US Senate
By Andy Sullivan and David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. congressional leaders said on Sunday they had reached agreement on a $900 billion package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, with votes likely on Monday.
“At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, following months of contentious debate.
The package would be the second-largest economic stimulus in U.S. history, following a $2.3 trillion aid bill passed in March. It comes as the pandemic accelerates, infecting more than 214,000 people in the country each day. More than 317,000 Americans have already died.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the package should have enough support to quickly pass both chambers of Congress. He said Democrats would push for more aid after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
“It will establish a floor, not a ceiling, for coronavirus relief in 2021,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
The package, which must be signed into law by President Donald Trump, would give $600 direct payments to individuals and boost unemployment payments by $300 a week. It also includes billions for small businesses, food assistance, transit and healthcare. It extends a moratorium on foreclosures and provides $25 billion in rental aid.
Lawmakers said they had resolved disputes over the Federal Reserve’s pandemic lending authority and other issues that had forced negotiations into the weekend.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives will likely vote on the package on Monday, with the Republican-controlled Senate to follow, according to House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer.
Congress aims to include the coronavirus aid package in a $1.4 trillion spending bill funding government programs through September 2021.
Government funding is due to expire at midnight Sunday, which means Congress would have to pass another temporary extension to avoid disruption. House Democrats prepared legislation that would extend that funding through Monday.
The bill leaves out two of the most contentious elements in the negotiations: legal protections for businesses from coronavirus lawsuits, which had been sought by Republicans, and the substantial aid for state and local governments advocated by Democrats.
But the package helps state and local governments indirectly by providing billions for schools, coronavirus testing and other expenses, Schumer said.
The bill would allow Federal Reserve emergency lending programs to expire on Dec. 31 for businesses and state and local governments, which Republicans said were an unnecessary government interference in private business. But it does not prevent similar programs from being created.
The pandemic will stand as the largest crisis facing Biden’s new administration, although signs of hope have emerged as the United States has begun vaccinating people against the highly contagious respiratory disease.
In the 11 months since the first cases of the new coronavirus were documented in the United States, COVID-19 has put millions of Americans out of work, with unemployment rising. Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan and David Shepardson; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Cooney.