Congress closes in on compromise for COVID-19 relief

The bipartisan $908 billion coronavirus-relief package, attached to a spending bill needed to avert a government shutdown, would exclude direct payments to individuals.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia speaks as members of Congress unveil a framework for COVID-19 relief legislation on Capitol Hill, Dec. 1, 2020. A proposed bill is expected to include a $300 weekly boost to federal unemployment and a hold on evictions.

A proposed COVID-19 relief bill is expected to get backing from President Donald Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, but it won’t include $1,200 in direct payments to most Americans, a Republican senator involved in the bipartisan talks says.

“President Trump has indicated that he would sign a $908 billion package – there’s only one $908 billion package out there and it’s ours,” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said Sunday. “The pain of the American people is driving this, and I’m optimistic that both those leaders will come on board.”

With time running out, lawmakers from both parties were closing in on the final language that would provide roughly $300 in extra weekly federal unemployment benefits, leaving the issue of cash payments for President-elect Joe Biden and a new Congress to wrestle over next year.

The package to be released Monday would be attached to a larger year-end spending bill needed to avert a government shutdown this coming weekend.

The direct payments were popular when they were first distributed after the pandemic hit, and Mr. Biden on Friday had expressed hope that a second wave might come after weekend negotiations.

But senators involved in the talks said the checks won’t be included as part of the compromise, even as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and others said that could cause them to oppose the measure.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, indicated that excluding the checks while assuring small-business aid and renters’ assistance was the only way to reach agreement with Republicans who are putting firm limits on the bill’s final price tag.

“The $1,200 check, it [costs] we believe nationally $300 billion, to give you an idea,” he said. “The Democrats have always wanted a larger number, but we were told we couldn’t get anything through the Republicans, except this $900 billion level.”

The plan being worked on by a group of Republican and Democratic senators is less than half of the Democrats’ push of $2.2 trillion and nearly double the $500 billion “targeted” package proposed by Mr. McConnell.

Mr. Cassidy agreed that a new round of direct checks “may be a go” at some point. “This is not a stimulus bill, it’s a relief bill,” he said. “And it’s something for the next three to four months to help those in greatest need.”

The proposal's expected $300-per-week unemployment bonus would provide relief just as emergency aid payments at regular benefit levels are set to expire at year’s end. It would extend a freeze on evictions for people who cannot pay their rent and reauthorize the Paycheck Protection Program to give a second round of subsidies to businesses struggling through the pandemic.

Still, potential sticking points remain.

Mr. Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said last week they wouldn’t support the $908 billion proposal if it did not include checks for families, and were joined by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez are also against shielding businesses from lawsuits claiming negligence for COVID-19 outbreaks, a provision pushed by Republicans.

While favoring the $1,200 checks, Mr. Biden said the emerging compromise was “immediately needed” and that additional assistance could follow later.

On Sunday, lawmakers involved in the negotiations said the direct payments would have to wait until after Mr. Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. At that time, Mr. Biden will face a new Congress as vaccines are being distributed, with a narrowed Democratic majority in the House and a closely divided Senate – potentially split 50-50 if Democrats are able to prevail in two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Mr. Sanders was not involved in the negotiations and “his characterization is just not accurate” about the potential liability protections for businesses. The direct payments, he said, will be a task for Mr. Biden.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the bipartisan group was focused on extending the most urgent aid for the next four months.

“Every indication says more money is needed; we see that,” he said. “This gets us through basically the lifelines that people need and the small businesses that can survive and not go under.”

Mr. Manchin said Mr. Biden’s team, when in power, “can put together a different proposal that takes us further down the road for more recovery.”

Mr. Durbin spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Cassidy appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Warner was on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Mr. Manchin was interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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