No deal yet for COVID relief payments to Americans

Two lawmakers tested postive for the virus over the weekend. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, revealed he tested positice for the virus. Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, also announced his diagnosis.

The highly anticipated $900 billion COVID-19 relief package lumbering through Congress this week includes a plan for $300-per-week jobless checks and $600 stimulus payments to most Americans, but a final deal has yet to materialize as lawmakers continue to work through the fine print.

» PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Congress adding second round of stimulus checks to COVID relief bill

Final passage in the House of a second major economic stimulus amid the coronavirus pandemic was reportedly imminent with bipartisan lawmakers making difficult compromises as the package fell short of what Democrats wanted, according to reports.

An announcement on the aid bill had been expected Wednesday but never happened as the nation’s Congressional leaders continued to hammer out details and make trade-offs.

A vote could come today, although nothing is certain.

“We’re still close and we’re gonna get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Wednesday evening as he left the Capitol. And during a Senate GOP lunchtime call a day earlier, party leaders stressed the importance of reaching an agreement before the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff election.

McConnell successfully pushed to get Democrats to drop their much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package while giving up a key priority of his own — a liability shield for businesses and other institutions like universities fearing COVID-19 lawsuits. Democrats cited other gains for states and localities in the emerging deal such as help for transit systems, schools and vaccine distribution.

The addition of the $600 direct payments came after recent endorsements from both President Donald Trump and progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who remains dissatisfied about the overall package.

“Everything that is in that package is vitally needed,” Sanders said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The problem is that it is a much smaller package than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation.”

Pressure for a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits run out Dec. 26 for more than 10 million people. Many businesses are barely hanging on after nine months of the pandemic. And money is needed to distribute new vaccines that are finally offering hope for returning the country to a semblance of normalcy.

Details were still being worked out early Thursday, but lawmakers in both parties said leaders had agreed on a top-line total of about $900 billion, with direct payments of perhaps $600 to most Americans and a $300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit to partially replace a $600-per-week benefit that expired this summer.

It also includes the renewal of extra weeks of state unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. More than $300 billion in subsidies for business, including a second round of “paycheck protection” payments to especially hard-hit businesses, are locked in, as is $25 billion to help struggling renters with their payments and provide food aid and farm subsidies, and a $10 billion bailout for the Postal Service.

Democrats acknowledged that the removal of a $160 billion-or-so aid package for state and local governments whose budgets have been thrown out of balance by the pandemic was a bitter loss.

The emerging package was serving as a magnet for adding on other items, and the two sides continued to swap offers. It was apparent that another temporary spending bill would be needed to prevent a government shutdown at midnight on Friday. That was likely to easily pass.

House lawmakers returned to Washington on Wednesday in hopes of a vote soon on the broader package, which would combine the COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion governmentwide funding bill and a host of other remaining congressional business, including extending expiring tax breaks and passing other unfinished legislation.

The bill is the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act in March, which delivered $1.8 trillion in aid and more generous jobless benefits and $1,200 direct payments to Americans.

Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for ambitious further federal steps to provide relief and battle the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to more fully reopen the economy and to avoid padding the government’s $27 trillion debt.

Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.