US Congress is engaged on COVID reduction as one other shutdown menace looms

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© Reuters. The dome of the US Capitol can be seen in Washington at night

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By Patricia Zengerle and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate held a rare Saturday session when Democrats and Republicans stood before a midnight Sunday deadline to finalize a $ 900 billion legislative package designed to help Americans after high health and safety fight economic costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

It would be the largest aid package since the spring, when Congress approved more than $ 4 trillion in aid. The COVID-19 pandemic killed 311,000 Americans, by far the most in the world, and left millions of people unemployed. Economists say growth is likely to remain sluggish until vaccines become widespread by mid-2021.

"We are still facing an ongoing five-alarm national crisis," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging lawmakers to put their differences aside and end the bill when he opened the Senate.

"There's an attraction here in Congress where any major negotiation can easily get caught up in an endless catalog of disagreements if we're not careful. Let's protect ourselves from that," McConnell said.

"We have to pass these measures with a large, bipartisan vote and incorporate them into law immediately," he said.

While talks continued, no vote on the package was expected until Sunday afternoon.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they are close to a deal, but talks ran into a new stumbling block later this week when some Republicans, led by Senator Pat Toomey, began promoting the Federal Reserve's lending programs for small and medium-sized businesses and issuers Curbing municipal bonds should ease the sting of the pandemic.

LIMITING BIDEN?

They said these programs should only be temporary and accused the Democrats of extending them until 2021 to provide unaudited funding for state and local governments controlled by members of their parties.

Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of attempting to tie the hands of the Fed in an attempt to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's ability to fuel the ailing economy after taking office on Jan. 20.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump, who insists Biden failed to win the November 3 elections and is talking about running again in 2024, said it supports Toomey's initiative.

The parties also disagree on how best to support art 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 problems were solved. The legislation is expected to include one-time $ 600 checks for most Americans, increased unemployment benefits of $ 300 a week, aid to states that distribute coronavirus vaccines, and more support for small businesses.

The deal does not include corporate liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a provision that was pushed by Republicans and has long been a red line for Democrats. Nor does it include the extensive assistance the Democrats want to state and local governments.

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

Congress now has a midnight Sunday deadline to approve further funding, adding pressure to work out a final COVID-19 deal.

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