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Home / Government / $900B COVID relief bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump (UPDATE)

$900B COVID relief bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump (UPDATE)

By ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and people and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill approved Monday night went to President Donald Trump for his signature, which was expected in the coming days.

The relief plan, released Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared it by a 92-6 vote after the House approved it by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking. The logjam broke only after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting money with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would provide a temporary $300-a-week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health-care providers and renters faced with eviction.

The 5,593-page piece of legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though the proposal was less than half the size that Democrats had wanted in the fall.

“This deal is not everything I want — not by a long shot,” said Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee and a Democrat from Massachusetts. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether we help small businesses and restaurants or not. It’s about whether we boost (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs or not. And whether we help those dealing with a job loss or not. To me, this is not a tough call.”

Congress also approved a one-week stopgap spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC on Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were saying they want to wait to see what happens.

The measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation followed a tortured path. Democrats played hardball up until Election Day, amid accusations that they wanted to deny Trump a victory that might help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands indeed became more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden made it clear that half a loaf was better than none.

The final bill bore much resemblance to a $1 trillion proposal Senate Republicans had put together in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said the pragmatic approach of Biden was indispensable.

“The president-elect suggesting that we needed to do something now was helpful in moving both Pelosi and Schumer into a better place,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “My view about what comes next is let’s take a look at it. Happy to evaluate that based upon the needs that we confront in February and March.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, D-California, came to the Senate to cast her vote for the bill. “The American people need relief and I want to be able to do what I can to help them,” she said.

As for the direct payments, the bill will provide $600 to people making as much as $75,000 a year and $1,200 to couples making as much as $150,000. The payments will be phased out at higher incomes. An additional $600 payment will be made for each dependent child, similar to what happened in the last round of relief payments in the spring.

The $300-a-week bonus federal jobless benefit was half that provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March. The direct $600 stimulus payment was also half the payment in March.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, has not looked into the eyes of the small-business owner on the brink of ruin,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who pushed hard for money to help his city’s transit systems, renters, theaters and restaurants.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle-ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the start for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off hardline positions.

“At times we felt like we were in the wilderness because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give, in order to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was gross to watch, frankly.”

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program by providing $284 billion, which would present a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minorities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

Six GOP senators voted against the bill: Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall in exchange for his signature. The Pentagon will receive $696 billion. Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more into the legislation for domestic programs.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water-resources bill that would provide $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers projects related to flood control and environmental and coastal protection. Another addition extends a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

The legislation also contains various clean-energy provisions sought by Democrats and fossil-fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other countries vaccinate their citizens, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires. Food-stamp benefits would temporarily be increased by 15%.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for the length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 — about one-half the size of Monday’s behemoth.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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