WASHINGTON – Lawmakers closed in on a roughly $900 billion COVID-19 relief deal Wednesday morning that may include another round of checks and other much-needed financial benefits for Americans, according to a source familiar with negotiations who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
The looming deal would restart a boost to federal unemployment insurance benefits and provide some form of relief for state and local governments, according to the source. Liability protections, a hurdle in negotiations when Republicans insisted they be included in any deal, are not likely to be in this package, the source said, though lawmakers continued to negotiate.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, said Wednesday he believed checks of $600 or $700 – “double that for family and kids” – were part of discussions. The unemployment benefit under discussion was about $300 per week, he said. About $330 billion was on the table to renew the Paycheck Protection Program for small-business loan forgiveness, he said.
Senate leaders seemed optimistic about the prospects of a deal Wednesday morning. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor lawmakers made “major headway” on closing a deal that could pass the House and Senate. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they were on the “precipice” of an agreement.
Schumer acknowledged the deal did not include everything Democrats wanted, but he said it was necessary in the “short term” and vowed to “work in the future to provide additional relief.”
President-elect Joe Biden praised congressional progress on a relief package as “encouraging,” but only as a down payment toward greater spending at the beginning of 2021.
The emerging contours of the deal caused some heartburn on both sides of the aisle.
“We’re not there. My job right now is to keep pushing for more,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., referring to the amount of unemployment insurance under consideration. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed in March provided a $600 boost to unemployment benefits until it ran out in July.
Thune said some Republicans might object to the unemployment benefit, but he predicted it would be “doable.” Some Republican senators argued the benefit paid people too much if they were out of work.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., citing the “emergency” need of the programs under discussion, said that on Capitol Hill, “we’re getting the things done that have the time urgency to it.”
After months of impasse in negotiations, congressional leaders seemed to break through the logjam after meeting twice Tuesday for hours. Lawmakers have until Friday to reach a relief deal if they hope to include it as part of a funding package needed to stop the government from shutting down at the end of the week.
Emerging from her office Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “We’ll be on schedule to get the job done.”
For any agreement bill to become law, the House and Senate must pass the legislation, and President Donald Trump must sign it.
Congress has not passed a comprehensive relief package since March, and as coronavirus case totals climbed and benefits lapsed, Democrats and Republicans were unable to come together on another deal. The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate offered their own versions of legislation only to be rejected by the other side.
Negotiations started and stopped over the course of the year, the two sides blaming one another for the impasse as Americans and businesses hoped for relief.
A late summer effort failed to produce a deal right before lawmakers went on a weekslong recess, prompting a string of executive orders from Trump. Talks picked up before the election as moderate lawmakers urged leaders to offer struggling Americans some form of relief, but the two sides were unable to produce a compromise. Discussions started again this month, both sides agreeing relief is desperately needed as Americans head indoors for the winter and virus cases spike.
A framework introduced by lawmakers at the beginning of December became the basis for the negotiations between congressional leaders. The framework did not initially include relief checks, drawing the ire of liberal lawmakers, who threatened to vote against it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called it a “red line” if a deal did not include “survival” payments or unemployment insurance.
As of Wednesday, more than 306,000 people in the USA have died because of the coronavirus, and the country reported 16.8 million confirmed cases.
Contributing: Bart Jansen