Congress approves $900 billion stimulus deal with business, unemployment aid

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is seen at the U.S. Capitol at night after negotiators sealed a deal for COVID relief Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Washington. Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal Sunday on an almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana via CN).

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress approved a $900 billion coronavirus stimulus package Monday evening that includes direct payments to most Americans and more funding for state and local governments.

The bitter slog of negotiations came to a rapid conclusion after lawmakers finally released text of legislation that will inject much-needed help into the U.S. economy, which has been bruised and battered by the Covid-19 pandemic for nearly a year. It took passing two continuing resolutions in both chambers for lawmakers to reach a consensus on relief language, but the bill will now be sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The package approved by the House and Senate also includes $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government through 2021. The legislation passed the House by a more than 300 vote majority and cleared the Senate in a similar bipartisan fashion by a 92-6 vote.

Republican Senators Rick Scott of Florida, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin voted nay on the package.

Those relying on unemployment benefits since the novel coronavirus outbreak shuttered businesses across the country will see a $300 boost under the new relief bill, though that’s half of what was included in the CARES Act passed in March. The supplemental $600 in jobless benefits expired in the summer.  

The new legislation also includes $600 direct payments to American adults earning up to $75,000 a year, or $1,200 for married couples making up to $150,000. That’s also half of what was included in the larger stimulus package this spring. For those who received the first round of checks, that stimulus has only amounted to just over $4 per day since late March.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi lamented Monday morning that the direct payments for individuals and families will not be as high as the first ones. Democrats had pushed for another round of $1,200 stimulus checks in the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act, which was never passed by the Senate.

“I would have liked them to have been bigger but they are significant and they will be going out soon,” Pelosi said from the House floor.

The first round of checks had President Trump’s signature on them. Pelosi stressed Monday ahead of the new stimulus package’s rollout that the forthcoming checks are not a Donald Trump production, but a taxpayer one.

“The president may insist on having his name on the check but make no mistake: Those checks are from the American people. The American people’s names should be on that check, no individual. Those are the sources of those resources for those checks,” she said.

During an appearance on CNBC on Monday morning, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin vowed payments would be delivered as soon as next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back on Pelosi’s comments about bigger checks, saying Democrats were insistent on an “all or nothing” approach. 

On Democrats’ push to renew $600 weekly unemployment benefits, McConnell said repeatedly Republicans would reject “far-left demands” to extend jobless benefits that paid Americans more to stay home than to work.

A provision in the CARES Act passed this spring required employers to give paid sick leave for two weeks if they became infected with Covid-19. But in the version passed tonight, that requirement has been omitted. McConnell successfully barred the benefit during negotiations ahead of passage.

The package gives roughly $284 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed as a lifeline for small businesses during the coronavirus crisis. Another $20 billion will go to businesses in low-income communities and $15 billion is included for businesses like movie theaters and live music venues.

State and local governments will also get a boost from about $70 billion in funding for testing, contract tracing and vaccine purchase and distribution. Schools and colleges are allocated over $80 billion in relief, plus a separate $10 billion for the child care sector. Another $45 billion will go to airlines and airports, mass transit systems and state highways.

To those frustrated with the glacial pace of negotiations since March, Pelosi blamed Republican lawmakers and leadership. 

“We couldn’t pass legislation until now because the administration simply did not believe in testing, tracing, treatment, wearing masks, sanitation, separation, and the rest,” Pelosi reflected. “It’s clear to us now: They believed in herd immunity quackery springing right from the Oval Office.” 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer lauded the bill from the House floor Monday evening. It was a bill brought to a people in waiting, Hoyer said, who have endured too much pain and too much emotional anguish to be made to wait any longer for relief.

“Mr. Speaker, this is the people’s bill,” Hoyer said. “This is a bill that must pass. They say good things come to those who wait. They’ve waited too long. Too much pain.” 

“In the richest country on the face of the earth, we have people in food lines who can’t feed themselves,” he added. “That is not only wrong it is immoral and inconsistent with my faith and I think, with the faith of most.” 

President Trump, who contracted the virus in October, has suggested ingesting bleach to treat Covid-19 and has propped up debunked claims around anti-malarial drugs like hydroxychloroquine. The president has also been resistant to wearing masks, a position often echoed in Congress where Republican lawmakers have made up the bulk of positive Covid-19 cases. According to Govtrack, 105 lawmakers have become infected since March.

Lawmakers also passed their fourth continuing resolution of the year on Friday, avoiding a shutdown by financing the government at current levels through Monday until a permanent deal could be hammered out.

The roughly $1.4 trillion for government spending includes $671.5 billion for defense funding and $656.5 billion in nondefense priorities.

More pandemic relief may arrive next year after President-election Joe Biden takes office. It is expected to include more allotments for state, local and tribal governments, and lawmakers will also take more time to work out legal liability protections for businesses. Republicans wanted the protections kept in during this round but Democrats balked, saying it gave carte blanche to companies to evade enforcement of health restrictions under the pandemic. 

According to Johns Hopkins University tracker, nearly 18 million Americans have been infected by Covid-19 and over 318,000 have died.

Each state has dealt with unique challenges since the pandemic began and relief has been slow to trickle in. In Nevada, for example, crowded casinos and live entertainment typically dominate revenue streams but the virus has caused massive unemployment and billions in lost revenue. 

Dave Marlon, psychotherapist and CEO for the largest addiction and rehab center in the state, CrossRoads of Southern Nevada, said in an interview Monday the wait for relief has been a force multiplier during the pandemic. Nevada hit a new record for Covid-19 deaths last week.

“People need to adapt and be self-supporting. We also need to focus on being useful, not focus on getting handouts,” Marlon said Monday. 

As the nation waits for the $4.5 billion in mental health resources to circulate, Marlon emphasized keeping communication open and seeking free support through groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. 

While the battle to pass relief has consumed much legislative work on Capitol Hill, another fight looms just ahead: Passage of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. 

Trump has threatened to veto the $740 billion bill which passed the Senate 84-13 on Dec. 11. A provision included in Monday night’s omnibus features a continuing resolution stretching seven days to deal with NDAA, meaning Dec. 28 could be the day President Trump courts a supermajority override of his veto. It would likely be the last clash between the administration and Congress.