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December 19, 2020 3:24 pm

US Congress Works on COVID Aid as Another Shutdown Threat Looms

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

The US Capitol dome is seen in Washington, US, December 17, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Erin Scott

The US Senate held a rare Saturday session as Democrats and Republicans faced a midnight Sunday deadline to complete a $900 billion package of legislation to help Americans struggling after the steep health and economic costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

It would be the largest relief package since spring, when Congress approved more than $4 trillion in aid. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed 311,000 Americans, by far the most in the world, and put millions out of work. Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.

“We’re still facing an ongoing five-alarm national crisis,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, urging lawmakers to put aside their differences and finish the bill as he opened the Senate.

“There’s a gravitational pull here in Congress, where unless we’re careful, any major negotiation can easily slide into an unending catalog of disagreements. Let’s guard against that,” McConnell said.

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“We need to pass these measures with a big, bipartisan vote and get them signed into law without further delay,” he said.

As talks continued, no vote on the package was expected before Sunday afternoon.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they are close to a deal, but talks ran into a new stumbling block late this week when some Republicans, led by Senator Pat Toomey, began a push to rein in Federal Reserve lending programs for midsize businesses and municipal bond issuers intended to ease the pandemic’s sting.

LIMITING BIDEN?

They said those programs were meant to be temporary and accused Democrats of seeking to extend them into 2021 as a backdoor way to provide unchecked funds for state and local governments controlled by members of their parties.

Democrats in turn accused the Republicans of trying to tie the Fed’s hands in order to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s options for boosting the flagging economy after he takes office on Jan. 20.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump, who insists Biden did not win the Nov. 3 election and talks of running again in 2024, said it supports Toomey’s initiative.

The parties also disagree over how best to aid arts venues closed by COVID-19 restrictions, and how much emergency money should go to local governments for supplies like personal protective equipment for schools.

Many issues have been settled. The legislation is expected to include one-off $600 checks for most Americans, enhanced unemployment benefits of $300 per week, help for states distributing coronavirus vaccines, and more assistance for small businesses.

The deal does not include liability protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a provision pushed by Republicans that has long been a red line for Democrats. Nor does it include the extensive aid to state and local governments Democrats wanted.

Congressional leaders plan to attach the package to a $1.4 trillion spending bill that would fund US government activity through September 2021. Government funding was due to expire on Friday, but lawmakers approved a two-day stopgap bill to buy more time that President Trump signed into law late on Friday.

Congress now faces a Sunday midnight deadline to approve more funding, adding to pressure to come up with a final COVID-19 agreement.

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