coronavirus

Congress Scrambles to Finalize Covid Relief, Avoid Shutdown as Deadline Draws Near

Erin Scott | Reuters
  • Congress aims to wrap up a coronavirus relief and government funding deal as millions of Americans await aid in a flagging economy.
  • The government will shut down Saturday and 12 million people will lose unemployment benefits the day after Christmas if lawmakers fail to act.
  • Congressional leaders say they are close to finalizing a $900 billion plan that would include small business aid, direct payments and a federal unemployment supplement.

Congress tried to put the finishing touches on a coronavirus relief deal Thursday as Washington drew closer to letting the government shut down and allowing millions to lose unemployment benefits.

Leaders on Capitol Hill say they have come close to an agreement on sending $900 billion in aid to Americans. Lawmakers have run short on time to pass a government funding and pandemic rescue package before federal funding lapses at 12:01 a.m. ET on Saturday.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a "bipartisan, bicameral agreement appears to be close at hand." He noted it was "highly likely" Congress would work through the weekend, and said lawmakers may have to pass a short-term funding measure to buy enough time to approve legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also said Democrats were moving closer to a consensus Thursday. She told reporters that "we made some progress this morning" and "are waiting to hear back."

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., held a series of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin into Wednesday night as the sides try to hammer out final details, according Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. He said they would speak again Thursday morning.

"All three emphasized the urgency to reaching an immediate agreement," he wrote in a tweet.

If and when Congress approves another rescue package, it would come too late for too many Americans. Thousands of people die from Covid-19 every week as the U.S. death toll climbs above 300,000. The virus has overwhelmed hospitals and health-care workers, and states require money to distribute desperately needed vaccines.

At the same time, more cracks have emerged in an already fragile economy. Initial jobless claims rose to 885,000 last week, the highest total since September, according to new data released Thursday. Millions of Americans have fallen behind on rent or gone to food banks for meals with public health restrictions in place for the foreseeable future.

If pandemic-era provisions to expand unemployment eligibility expire the day after Christmas, 12 million people will lose benefits. Others across the country will face eviction if a federal moratorium expires at the end of the year.

Congress, for the moment, appears poised to beat those deadlines. But even if lawmakers can strike a deal Thursday, they have to write legislation and get it through both chambers of Congress and across President Donald Trump's desk — a process that can take days when Washington moves as quickly as possible.

"I think we'll finish up on Saturday," GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio told CNBC on Thursday.

Congressional leaders aim to combine the coronavirus aid plan and a $1.4 trillion full-year spending bill into one package. They hope to keep the government running through Sept. 30, 2021.

As lawmakers finish the $900 billion rescue plan, many details are unknown. Without getting deep into the specifics, McConnell confirmed it would include Paycheck Protection Program small business loans, another direct payment, funds for Covid-19 testing and vaccine distribution and an extension of the pandemic-era unemployment benefits expansion.

The package is expected to include roughly $300 billion in small business aid. It is set to extend the eviction moratorium. The proposal would also reinstate a federal unemployment insurance supplement, potentially at the $300 per week level set out in a bill proposed by a rank-and-file bipartisan group on Monday.

Congress may cut the direct payment to about $600, lower than the $1,200 payment sent as part of the CARES Act passed in March. Reports indicate families would get more help, as they would receive $600 per child for at least two kids.

Many lawmakers and economists worry the package will not provide nearly enough help to people who have suffered for months during the pandemic. One widely circulated report this week found nearly 8 million Americans fell into poverty since June, as pandemic lifelines such as the $600 per week federal jobless benefit put in place by Congress expired.

While many struggling Americans have stayed in their homes due to eviction moratoriums, they still owe thousands of dollars in rent.

"The problem is it is a much smaller amount than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told MNSBC of the developing plan on Wednesday.

While he has threatened to hold up legislation if it does not include another $1,200 stimulus check, Sanders said he was "glad" lawmakers included the $600 payment.

On Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden called the $900 billion measure a "down payment." He plans to push for another round of relief after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Democrats and some Republicans will likely push for state and local government relief. The measure, along with GOP-backed liability protections for businesses, is not expected to make it into the $900 billion plan because lawmakers could not agree on how to distribute the aid.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who along with Portman helped to negotiate the bipartisan legislation released earlier this week, acknowledged Congress will likely consider another relief bill in 2021.

"This is not a do all, end all," he told CNBC on Thursday morning.

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