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

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress on Sunday said they were close to finalizing a $900 billion package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy hammered by the pandemic, but it remained unclear when they would vote to seal the deal.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol dome is seen at night in Washington, U.S., December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

Their remarks followed late-night negotiations in which senators from both parties struck a compromise to clear one of the final hurdles, a dispute over Federal Reserve pandemic lending authority.

The package would be the second-largest economic stimulus in U.S. history, following a $2.3 trillion aid bill passed in March. The deal comes as the pandemic accelerates, infecting more than 214,000 people in the country each day. More than 316,000 Americans have already died.

The package would give $600 direct payments to individuals, boost unemployment payments by $300 per week, and provide aid to small businesses. Congress aims to include the coronavirus aid package in a $1.4 trillion spending bill funding government programs through September 2021.

One senior Senate Republican said there may not be enough time to pass the measures before government funding expires at midnight (0500 GMT Monday), which means lawmakers would have to pass another temporary extension to keep the government operating.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the chamber’s top Democrat, told reporters on Sunday she wanted to give members some time to review the package before calling a vote.

“I think we’re close, we’re very close,” Pelosi said. “But we want to have members have enough time to review it all.”

Her counterpart, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, told reporters: “I think we are really, really close.”

The bill leaves out two of the most controversial 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.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Congress would take up further relief next year. “This bill will not be the final word on congressional COVID relief,” he said on the Senate floor.

Sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Sunday the deal was expected to grant U.S. airlines $15 billion in new payroll assistance that will allow them to return more than 32,000 furloughed workers to their payrolls through March 31.

The deal would also include $1 billion for passenger railroad Amtrak, $14 billion for public transit systems and $10 billion for state highways, one of the sources said.

The House went into session at noon ET (1700 GMT) but quickly went into recess, telling lawmakers to stay nearby and expect votes.

“I do have optimism that it’ll pass,” 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 get this done today.”

Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said lawmakers might not be able to vote on the deal by midnight.

“I think it’s doubtful, would be my guess,” he said.

DISPUTE OVER FEDERAL RESERVE

Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, had insisted on language that would guarantee that the Federal Reserve could not revive emergency lending programs for small businesses and state and local governments after they expire on Dec. 31.

Republicans had said the programs are an unnecessary government interference in private business. They accused Democrats of seeking to extend them into 2021 as a backdoor way to provide unchecked funds for state and local governments controlled by members of their party.

Democrats in turn accused the Republicans of trying to tie the Fed’s hands to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s options for boosting the flagging economy after he takes office on Jan. 20.

The two sides agreed on language that would allow the exact program currently in place to renew but did not block similar programs from being created.

San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the package would provide much-needed relief for the economy.

“This support is unequivocally beneficial,” Daly said.

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. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

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