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Late-night deal clears way for vote on coronavirus aid plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks down a hall while reporters hold out smartphones toward him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks past reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(Associated Press)

Top congressional lawmakers struck a late-night agreement on the last major obstacle to a COVID-19 economic relief package costing nearly $1 trillion, clearing the way for votes as early as Sunday.

A Democratic aide said in an email that an agreement had been reached late Saturday and that compromise language was being finalized to seal a deal to be unveiled Sunday.

The breakthrough involved a fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers that was defused by an odd couple: the Senate’s top Democrat and a senior conservative Republican.

“We’re getting very close, very close,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said earlier Saturday as he spent much of the day going back and forth with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). Toomey had been pressing a provision to close down Fed lending facilities that Democrats and the White House said was too broadly worded and would have tied the hands of the incoming Biden administration.

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The COVID-19 legislation has been held up after months of dysfunction, posturing and bad faith, but talks turned serious in December as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline of acting before exiting Washington for Christmas.

Donald Trump was elected partly on his fame for “The Art of the Deal,” yet he’s cut no big deals in office. The relief package is the latest, perhaps final, example.

The bill, lawmakers and aides say, would establish a temporary $300-per-week supplemental jobless benefit and $600 direct stimulus payments to most Americans, along with a fresh round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and funding for schools, healthcare providers and renters facing eviction.

Schumer said he hoped both the House and Senate would vote on the measure Sunday. That would take more cooperation than the Senate can usually muster, but a government shutdown deadline looms at midnight Sunday, and all sides are eager to leave for Christmas.

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Toomey defended his controversial provision in a floor speech, saying the emergency powers were designed to stabilize capital markets at the height of the COVID-19 panic this spring and were expiring at the end of the month anyway. The language he had sought would block the Biden administration from restarting them.

Toomey dug in, and Democrats held firm as well, but both sides saw the need for a compromise to clear the way for the $900-billion-plus COVID-19 relief measure, which was being attached to a $1.4-trillion governmentwide spending bill and a host of other bills that composed much of Capitol Hill’s remaining legislative output of the Trump era.

At issue were Fed emergency programs, launched amid the pandemic this spring, that provided loans to small and midsize businesses and bought state and local government bonds. Those bond purchases made it easier for those governments to borrow, at a time when their finances were under pressure from job losses and health costs stemming from the pandemic.

The lucky among California’s small businesses have cobbled together loans and grants to get through the pandemic so far. But that money has dried up, and “you can only take on so much debt.”

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Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said last month that those programs, along with two that purchased corporate bonds, would close at the end of the year, prompting an initial objection by the Fed. Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed after the Great Recession, the Fed can set up emergency programs only with the support of the Treasury secretary.

Democrats in Congress said Toomey was trying to limit the Fed’s ability to boost the economy, just as Biden prepared to take office.

“This is about existing authorities that the Fed has had for a very long time, to be able to use in an emergency,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “It’s about a lending authority for helping small businesses, state government, local government in the middle of a crisis.”

Toomey disputed that charge, saying his proposal “is emphatically not a broad overhaul of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority.”

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The massive package would wrap much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished 2020 business into a take-it-or-leave-it behemoth of a document that promises to be a foot thick or more. House lawmakers will probably have only a few hours to study it before voting as early as Sunday afternoon. A Senate vote would follow, possibly on Monday. One more short-term funding bill would be needed to avoid the looming deadline — or a partial shutdown of nonessential agencies would start Monday.

The $900-billion package was being finished as the pandemic delivered its most fearsome surge yet, killing more than 3,000 victims per day and straining the healthcare system. While vaccines are on the way, most people won’t get them for months. Jobless claims are on the rise.

The package would be the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the CARES Act passed virtually unanimously in March, delivering $1.8 trillion in aid, more generous bonus jobless benefits of $600 per week and $1,200 direct payments to individuals.

The governmentwide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. That measure was likely to provide a final $1.4-billion installment for President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature.


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