House passes $900 billion in COVID relief, catch-all measure

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The House easily passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package late Monday that would finally provide much-needed cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation facing an increasing frightening number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers added a $1.4 trillion catch-all spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session deals to a massive package of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books of the year.

The lopsided 359-53 vote was a bipartisan coda to months of partisan politics as lawmakers squabbled over the relief issue, a stalemate that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to agree to a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, crossed the House within hours. A Senate vote that would send the bill to President Donald Trump seemed likely to follow soon.

The bill combines coronavirus relief funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary additional unemployment benefit of $300 a week and a direct stimulus payment of $600 for most Americans, as well as a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and l money for schools, healthcare providers and tenants facing eviction. .

The 5,593-page legislation – by far the longest bill of all time – was drafted on Sunday after months of post-election fighting, posturing and negotiations that stymied a number of approaching Democratic demands. of the end of the session of Congress. President-elect Joe Biden was eager to strike a deal to deliver much-needed relief to the suffering and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size Democrats wanted in the fall .

“This deal isn’t all I want — not by a long shot,” said rules committee chairman Jim McGovern, R-Mass., a longtime voice in the party’s old-school Liberal wing. . “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether or not we help families. It’s about whether or not we’re helping small businesses and restaurants. It is about whether or not we are increasing benefits (food stamps) and strengthening anti-hunger programmes. And whether or not we help those facing job loss. For me, that’s not a hard call.

The Senate was also on track to pass a week-long interim spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, told CNBC Monday morning that direct payments would start arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more help to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The measure would fund the government until September, packing a year of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw a Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation has followed a tortuous path. Democrats played hard until Election Day amid accusations they wanted to deny Trump a victory that could help him win. Democrats have denied this, but their demands have indeed become more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden has made it clear that half a loaf is better than nothing.

The final bill looked a lot like a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, as far too little.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said Biden’s pragmatic approach was key.

“A few days ago, with a new president elected from their own party, everything changed. Democrats suddenly embraced our position that we should find consensus, legislate where we agree, and get urgent help at the door,” McConnell said.

On direct payments, the bill provides $600 for individuals earning up to $75,000 a year and $1,200 for couples earning up to $150,000, with payments being phased out for higher incomes. An additional payment of $600 will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of spring relief payments.

The unemployment bonus of $300 a week was half of the additional federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act of $1.8 billion in March. This more generous benefit would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The $600 direct stimulus payment was also half the March payment.

The CARES Act has been credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread shutdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate have cited debt problems to lobby against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is good enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, hasn’t looked a small business owner in the eye on the brink of ruin,” the leader said. Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, a New Yorker who lobbied for money to help his city’s transit systems, tenants, theaters and restaurants.

The progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates crafted a $908 billion plan that established a middle ground that the top four congressional leaders — the GOP and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate – used as a basis for their talks. Lawmakers have urged leaders on both sides to back down from their hardline stances.

“Sometimes we felt like we were in the desert because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give in, in order to give the other side a win,” the freshman rep said. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was disgusting to watch, frankly.”

Republicans were mostly determined to revive the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to particularly hard-hit businesses. Democrats won allowances for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rent assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other performance venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care. children.

The government-wide appropriations bill was likely to provide a final $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall as a condition of securing his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Senate Democrats and Republicans prevailed in a bid to use accounting maneuvers to squeeze an additional $12.5 billion for national programs into legislation.

The bill has been a driving force in completing much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including a nearly 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 water control projects. flood, environmental and coastal protection of the Army Corps of Engineers. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as the one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It would also include many clean energy provisions sought by Democrats with fossil fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase broadband access, $4 billion to help other nations to vaccinate their population, $14 billion for cash-strapped transportation systems, $1 billion for Amtrak, and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for length of legislation was 1986’s 2,847-page tax reform bill – about half the size of Monday’s juggernaut.

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