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Congress passes $900 billion ‘historic bipartisan rescue package’ that now heads to Trump for approval

The U.S. Capitol Building. (Dreamstime/TNS)

After weeks of painstaking negotiation and months of partisan finger-pointing, the Senate resoundingly passed a sweeping COVID-19 relief package Monday, sending a bill to President Donald Trump to sign that will send millions of Americans direct payments and rescue thousands of small businesses nationwide struggling to stay open in the face of the pandemic’s suffocating grip.

The roughly $900 billion measure was attached to a $1.4 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, 2021 (the end of the fiscal year) to form a nearly 5,600 page-bill that is one of the largest pieces of legislation Congress has ever tackled. It also includes bipartisan provisions like the end of surprise medical billing and legislation creating Smithsonian museums for women and Latinos.

Earlier in the evening, the House passed the measure 359-53. Hours later, the Senate approved it by a 91-7 vote.

“This bill will not end all of the suffering,” said Rep. Al Green, D-TX, on the House floor before he voted for the measure. “However, it will ease much of the pain.”

Lawmakers grumbled about the size and scope of the legislation, whose substantial text was only released hours before the Monday evening vote.

The bill also demanded a fix to a pandemic shutdown in federal safety screenings for lead and other hazards in toys and consumer products entering American ports, which a USA TODAY investigation earlier this month brought to the attention of lawmakers.

Congress demanded the Consumer Product Safety Commission keep its safety inspectors working at ports across the nation for the duration of the pandemic, after USA TODAY’s reporting revealed that the agency had pulled them from mid-March until September while holiday gifts entered the U.S. by the shipload.

The bill also ordered the agency to report back to Congress on the risk that consumers were exposed to during the nearly six-month lapse in routine screenings for hazards including chemical phthalates and small toy parts that can choke toddlers, as well as how it plans to address any dangerous products that reached stores and American households.

But despite their ideological reservations, most lawmakers voted for it anyway, citing the emergency need for aid and Congress’ previous delay sending more relief.

“As a progressive, there’s a time to fight,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., “And then there are times to take what we got, and move on.”

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who often criticizes federal spending, was not a fan of the relief measure but signaled he would allow it to move forward in the Senate.

“To so-called conservatives who are quick to identify the socialism of Democrats, if you vote for this spending monstrosity, you are no better,” he said on the Senate floor hours before the vote. “When you vote to pass out free money, you lose your soul and you abandon forever any semblance of moral or fiscal integrity.”

But after his speech, he told reporters he had made his point, and therefore “I don’t have any reason to hold the bill up.”

The latest round of stimulus — the fifth passed by Congress since the pandemic began nearly a year ago — was the result of intense negotiations in recent days as lawmakers and their staffs worked around the clock on a compromise that drew criticism from the far right for being too costly and from the far left who said it didn’t go far enough to help Americans.

The measure, which Trump is expected to sign, comes at a crucial time for the economy as an eviction moratorium is about to expire and federal unemployment benefits are about to run out. In addition, the bill provides money for COVID testing and newly available vaccines that are designed not only to save lives but eventually lead to an easing of social distancing measures and capacity limits that have squeezed businesses, notably restaurants.

“In a few days of hard work, we have a historic bipartisan rescue package,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said on the Senate floor hours before the vote. “Just under $900 billion of relief targeted to our fellow Americans who need help the most.”

The package is about half the size of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March but its reach will be almost as broad.

It sends direct payments of $600 each to tens of millions of Americans and their dependents, half of the $1,200 provided under CARES but still a lifeline for families trying to survive a worsening economy. The credit phases out for individuals starting at $75,000 of modified adjusted gross income and $150,000 for married filing jointly.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the payments could be delivered to Americans starting next week.

“So much needed relief. Just in time for the holidays,” he told CNBC Monday morning. “It’s money that gets recirculated in the economy, so people go out and spend this money and that helps small business and that helps getting more people back to work.”

The relief package provides a federal supplement to unemployment insurance of $300 through mid-March as a $600 benefit is set to expire at the end of this month.

In addition, renters would get some relief with $25 billion in federal assistance payments and a one-month extension of a moratorium that was set to expire Dec. 31 on rental evictions. In addition, low-income families who qualify for federal nutrition assistance would see a monthly increase in aid of up to 15%.

The measure also includes $30 billion for the procurement and distribution of coronavirus vaccines and therapies, as well as billions for testing and contact tracing.

With about $285 billion in funding, small businesses would have access to another round of the Paycheck Protection Program that has kept many of them treading water amid the COVID health restrictions. In addition, $15 billion was included to specifically help venues that offer live performances, which have been unable to open as the virus rages across the country.

The bill provides $82 billion for schools and colleges to help them respond to a crisis that has kept many students out of the classroom. It also includes $10 billion to support state and local transportation agencies.

Although billions for schools and transit agencies are part of the measure, the bill does not include direct aid for cash-starved local and state governments for which Democrats have been pushing. Nor does it include the liability protections Republicans have demanded for businesses looking for protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Lawmakers on both sides they expect another round of relief will have to be approved at some point.

“It’s a first step and we will need to do more,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, said on the House floor Monday morning. Pelosi said later Monday in a letter to House Democrats their path forward would emphasize “workforce development, child care and mental health.”

President-elect Joe Biden called the relief package “just the beginning” of further relief efforts in a Sunday night statement and pledged to deliver more aid at the beginning of his administration.

But Democrats’ ability to advance more relief legislation at the beginning of next year will hinge on the outcome of two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. If Democrats win both races, the Senate will be tied 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties.


(c) 2020 USA Today

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