As congressional leaders prepared to rush through a massive $900bn Covid-19 aid bill in just one day, holding out the promise of temporary relief to millions of struggling Americans, prominent Democrats asked why the deal took so long to reach yet still fell short of meeting the country’s dire needs.
The proposed relief package, the second-largest such attempt at economic stimulus in US history after the $2.3tn Cares Act earlier this year, is expected to be scrambled through both chambers of Congress on Monday, hard against a deadline to fund the government for the next year.
The 11th-hour nature of the deal is likely to lead to scenes of unseemly haste in both House and Senate, with lawmakers given just a few hours to read the huge bill before voting.
The House was poised to pick up the bill on Monday morning, with an aim to pass the package by midday. It would then pass to the Senate where the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, held out the hope of ramming it through also within the day.
Donald Trump has complained that Congress has failed to act so far, stating in a tweet on Sunday: “Why isn’t Congress giving our people a Stimulus Bill? [The pandemic] wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of China. GET IT DONE, and give them more money in direct payments.”
But the White House has indicated the president will sign the bill.
The deal was thrashed out between leaders of both parties late on Sunday night. It includes $286bn in direct economic relief, with more than half going on direct payments of $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 or couples up to $150,000.
In addition, the US government will restart pandemic unemployment benefits at a lower level of $300 a week. The benefits, which will last until 14 March, are down from the $600 benefits that expired in July.
With cash support cut in half, prominent Democrats lamented that it had taken until the last minute to iron out disputes holding back the package, and that when it is finally done the deal will still fall short. Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut, said it was too little, too late.
“For months, Americans buckling under the weight of Covid-19 begged Congress for help,” he said. “But up until a few days ago, Mitch McConnell refused to even come to the negotiating table. It shouldn’t have taken until the last possible minute to fund the government and to provide some measure of relief to those in need.”
Despite the criticism, Murphy said he would back the bill when it reaches the Senate, on grounds that it would “help small businesses keep their doors open. It will help those who have lost their jobs. And it will help make sure that we’re able to distribute the vaccine as quickly as possible to people in our state”.
Other top Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and Chuck Schumer, Senate minority leader, also said that the bill does not go far enough. They have pledged to push Joe Biden for more relief when he takes office on 20 January.
But given the depth of Republican intransigence that has made passing the current bill so slow and cumbersome, the likelihood of Biden steering another large relief bill through Congress appears slim. It further highlighted the critical importance of the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January that will determine which party controls the chamber.
Among elements of the relief deal are a $325bn fund to provide forgivable loans to small businesses, $82bn for schools and colleges impacted by the pandemic and $69bn to assist the quick and smooth distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. For the first time, the federal government will also set up a rental assistance program providing support through state and local governments to help people who have fallen behind on their rents.
Wrangling over the final terms of the bill continued throughout the weekend, including a rare Saturday session. At the end of prolonged late-night discussions on Sunday, McConnell said: “We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: more help is on the way.”
He added: “Moments ago, in consultation with our committees, the four leaders of the Senate and House finalised an agreement for another major rescue package for the American people.”
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