Lawmakers in Washington are attempting to hammer out final details of a new coronavirus stimulus aid package. They must do so before midnight Sunday, when the federal government is currently set to shut down, unless Congress passes legislation attached to the stimulus bill that would keep it open.
Fortunately, leaders of both parties say they are close to a deal.
“It appears that, barring a major mishap, the Senate and House will be able to vote on final legislation as early as tonight,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Sunday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed this optimism, saying Sunday, “I hope and expect to have a final agreement nailed down in a matter of hours.”
At stake is $900 billion in relief for individuals and businesses, which would also fund Covid-19 vaccination distribution, rent and utility assistance, and the extension of a federal eviction moratorium at a time when as many as 40 million Americans are facing housing instability and struggling to pay rent.
That package also includes one-time individual payments to Americans, likely in the amount of $600, after attempts by some lawmakers for slightly higher payments were blocked.
The final stimulus will be combined with this year’s omnibus government spending bill, worth $1.4 trillion, which would fund the US government through next September. Failure to pass this spending bill, or a temporary funding extension, by midnight on Sunday would leave the government without money to function, forcing it to shut down.
The spending bill has been postponed throughout last week, as stimulus talks continued to stall following months of failed negotiations, but congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have promised that a final bill is at last nearly ready for a vote.
Lawmakers had come into the weekend making similar promises — however, on Saturday, negotiation progress was held up as some Republicans attempted to limit emergency lending powers at the Federal Reserve, the US’s central bank.
These Republicans, led by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), wanted to permanently end economic support programs enacted at the central bank during the outset of the pandemic, citing concerns that the programs distort the Fed’s role in the financial system. Democrats argued that the GOP’s true concern was that the programs would allow President-elect Joe Biden to enact stimulus measures Republicans are opposed to, independent of Congress.
At just about midnight on Sunday, Democrats reportedly agreed to allow those programs to be shelved, and promised the final legislation would include language barring the Fed from re-creating some of them down the line without first consulting Congress.
However, the Fed would retain control over a narrow set of programs, and would be able to restart these without congressional approval. The Fed will also have to return unspent money it got from the Treasury Department as part of the first stimulus package in March — something it had previously agreed to do.
With that debate settled, congressional leaders signaled that a vote on the bill could occur Sunday afternoon, characterizing negotiations on the bill’s final details as moving swiftly: “We are winnowing down the remaining differences,” McConnell said on Sunday afternoon.
However, a hoped-for afternoon vote did not transpire. The final details are still being worked out, and the vote is now expected to take place either late on Sunday, or on Monday, following the passage of a continuing resolution that would provide temporary government funding — enough to avoid a shutdown.
What the stimulus bill does — and doesn’t — include
After nearly eight months of stimulus gridlock, lawmakers began debating a set of bills introduced by a bipartisan group of senators on Monday. The package initially consisted of a $748 billion bill, which contained funding for 16 weeks of enhanced unemployment insurance, and a $160 billion bill, which included money for state and local aid, as well as liability protections for businesses.
The dispute over the Fed that followed was in some ways related to this second proposal, as Vox’s Emily Stewart explains. Democrats have argued for months that aid to state and local governments is badly needed by those that were forced to overspend to procure coronavirus supplies while facing depressed tax revenues, but Republicans have opposed it.
Republicans, meanwhile, maintained that any stimulus would need to include liability protections, shielding businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Democrats were staunchly against this.
It was this debate that led to these proposals being sectioned off into their own legislation, and eventually, it was decided that both were better left to be addressed in the future. But, as Stewart explains, some Republicans were concerned state and local aid could flow from the Fed through its emergency lending programs. After Saturday night’s deal, that is no longer a possibility.
As negotiations reach their conclusion, a final package has emerged that is expected to be worth $900 billion. President Donald Trump signaled his support for a bill early Sunday morning, tweeting, “GET IT DONE”.
Why isn’t Congress giving our people a Stimulus Bill? It wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of China. GET IT DONE, and give them more money in direct payments.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2020
Overall, the aid package is expected to include new funding for unemployment, food and rental assistance for Americans, business relief, and vaccine distribution funds. It will also include another round of stimulus checks — although at a number far lower than the first round of $1,200 checks sent out in the spring.
According to congressional leaders, most aspects of the bill are now finalized. There will be support for small businesses, schools, and other institutions. For example, $300 billion would be added to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), intended to supplement wages lost by employees of small businesses, and $82 billion would go toward education, with an additional $10 billion for child care.
As millions of Americans experience housing insecurity, struggling to make rent payments and potentially facing eviction, the package will include up to $25 billion in rent and utilities support, and also extend a broad moratorium on most evictions through January 31, 2021. There will be about $25 billion in food aid, and more than $10 billion guaranteed for vaccine distribution.
A provision to expand federal unemployment insurance will also be included. Unemployed workers will be eligible for $300 per week. The unemployment support will likely last for 11 payments — but payments would not be made retroactively.
There will also be one-time payments to all Americans beneath a certain income level; those payments will reportedly be $600 for all individuals making $75,000 or less.
Lawmakers hope to pass a bill by Monday — at the latest
There isn’t a lot of distance between the two parties at the moment, and there is intense time pressure to finally get something done, not only because of the pressing need of many Americans, but to avoid a costly government shutdown.
For a while, the size of the one-time stimulus checks were a significant sticking point. Now, that issue — and most others — appear settled.
Exactly when a vote will be held is not completely clear. Pelosi has said she wants to give lawmakers “enough time to review it all,” and as of early Sunday evening no lawmakers outside of leadership had been given an opportunity to see the bill. Given the tight timetable, it is unlikely any lawmaker will have the time needed to fully and carefully read the legislation, but they nevertheless may be given some time for review.
Leaders of both parties are shooting for a vote late Sunday evening, before the government shutdown is triggered. However, the New York Times has reported that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), privately told his party members in the House that the vote might be delayed.
If that is the case, lawmakers are expected to pass a continuing resolution extending government funding until Monday, and to pass both the stimulus package and funding bill then.