Congress close to coronavirus deal that includes stimulus checks


Senate and House leaders are on the cusp of a coronavirus relief deal that will include direct $600 to $700 direct stimulus payments and $300-per-week supplemental unemployment assistance, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The $900 billion package is the result of months of stop-and-start negotiations that received a boost in early December when a bipartisan group of senators and House members unveiled their own $908 billion package after talks between Democratic leaders and the White House stalled.

The emerging deal, however, will not include $160 billion in new state and local aid or liability protection for businesses and other organizations — two of the most contentious issues of the talk.

The new round of stimulus checks cost approximately the same as the $160 billion in state and local aid that negotiators have set aside in hopes of reaching a deal by week’s end.

Senate and House leaders want to attach the new coronavirus relief package to a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package that needs to pass by Dec. 18 to keep the government funded.

The emerging deal is based largely on a revised $748 billion relief bill that the bipartisan group of Senate and House moderates unveiled Monday, which left aside state and local funding and the liability protection provisions.  

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters Wednesday the stimulus checks will be $600 to $700 per individual.”

Thune said he expects the package to provide $300 a week in supplemental federal unemployment assistance through March and confirmed that it would not include additional state and local aid funding.

The senator said there could be language in the deal aimed at addressing concerns that people who receive both enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks would be getting a "double benefit." Tax experts said that it would be difficult for the IRS to administer a provision that prevents unemployment recipients from getting direct payments.

Thune said the plan for the House to act on the combined COVID relief-omnibus spending package first and send it to the Senate to pass before the Friday night deadline.

In a win for Republicans, the cost of the COVID-relief portion of the package is below $1 trillion, an upper boundary set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republicans earlier this year.

While the package does not include the $160 billion tranche for state and local government, a person familiar with the negotiations says it includes “other avenues to deliver aid to states, localities, territories and tribes” and emphasized the McConnell did not get the liability provisions he said earlier this year would be part of any deal.

It would provide between $320 billion and $330 billion for the second round of Paycheck Protection Program small-business loans, according to sources familiar with the talks, as well as money for broadband Internet services, food assistance and rental insurance.

“We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities,” McConnell announced on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

“We committed to continuing these urgent discussions until we have an agreement and we agreed we will not leave town until we’ve made law,” the GOP leader added. “The American people need more help, it’s that simple. Further targeted relief is now months overdue.”

A GOP aide said Republicans offered to provide state and local governments with an extra $90 billion to be distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Thune said, “I think they’re trying to help the states out in other ways” but said “it’s hard to say” whether GOP lawmakers will agree to the extra support for state and local government, which has been a controversial issue among Republicans.

“If it’s simply a way of disguising money for state and local governments we’ll have a lot of opposition,” he warned. “The way they were talking about doing it is distributing it through other programs.

“I’m sure it’s a way of trying to convince our guys that this isn’t what it looks like but in the end our members have a lot of opposition to the state and local component of the conversation,” he added.

Thune confirmed the package includes close to $330 billion in new PPP funding, which would be more than the $300 billion allocated to the Small Business Administration in the bipartisan proposal introduced by Senate and House moderates Monday.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday that “we are close to an agreement.”

He cautioned that “it’s not a done deal yet, but we are very close.”

“For Democrats this has always been about getting the American people the relief they need at a time of an acute national crisis, of an emergency to so many Americans,” he said. “This has been about delivering a lifeline to Americans who were laid off through no fault of their own.”

Schumer acknowledged that “we Democrats would have liked to go considerably further,” alluding to the lack of another substantial tranche of federal aid to state and local governments, but he pledged “this won’t be the last time Congress speaks on COVID relief.”

“Make no mistake, we will work in the future to provide additional relief as the country requires but we need to provide a platform to build on, we need to address this emergency right now,” he said.

The addition of a second round of direct payments is a win for progressive lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as GOP Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), who had pushed for checks to be part of the package.

Sanders and Hawley, however, called for $1,200 direct payments to individuals. 

Both senators on Wednesday praised the inclusion of direct payments but said they want them to be larger than the $600 to $700 range identified by leaders.

“I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made,” Sanders said. “I’m going to continue to fight for more because people are in trouble right now and they need help but it’s a good start.”

Asked if he would now drop his objection to waiving procedural hurdles to allow the year-end package to pass quickly, Sanders replied: “Right now we’re going to do our best to get the $1,200 but this is a good start.”

Hawley said “it’s progress” but cautioned “it’s not the level I think it should be.”

A new round of stimulus payments is also expected to help secure President Trump’s support for the deal.

The White House last week had proposed direct payments of $600 per adult and per child, which analysts estimate would cost about $170 billion.

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