Covid relief: McConnell and Pelosi make ‘major headway’ in late-night meetings, breaking months of deadlock

Party leaders have vowed to stay in Washington through Christmas if that’s how long it takes to get a deal

Griffin Connolly
Thursday 17 December 2020 01:07 GMT
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The so-called four corners of Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress made “major headway” towards another deal on Covid relief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said.

That deal is shaping up to include a pared-down version of the of direct payments Americans taxpayers received this past spring. Instead of $1,200 checks, the Treasury Department would send out checks of $600 to help reduce the eventual bill’s top-line price tag, sources on Capitol Hill have told The Independent.

Mr McConnell and Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed they “will not leave town until we’ve made law”, the Kentucky Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

“The American people need more help. It's that simple. Further targeted relief is now months overdue.”

After a pair of meetings on Tuesday night that kept Mr McConnell, Ms Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the Capitol until 10pm, lawmakers appeared to be homing in on another deal to bolster the US economy and health care system, with as much as $1trn to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.

Democrats appear to have relented for now on their demands for an injection of billions of dollars for state and local governments on the frontlines of the pandemic response, while Republicans have tabled their pursuit of language to shield businesses, health care providers, and school systems from liability lawsuits stemming from Covid exposure.

Both parties had been holding firm on those two sticking points for months.

Mr Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader,  struck a rare note of bipartisanship on Wednesday when he said Republicans and Democrats are now “working in earnest” towards a deal, a signal that lawmakers are indeed closing in on one.

“It's not a done deal yet. But we are very close,” Mr Schumer said.

The parties have long agreed that they must reauthorise a key Covid-era programme that has supplemented recently laid-off workers’ state unemployment checks with $600 from the federal government. That programme expires on 26 December, the ultimate deadline for getting another Covid deal across the finish line.

Mr McConnell and Ms Pelosi also share common ground on reauthorising the so-called Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a crucial federal lending programme that has been helping small businesses keep employees on the payroll through the pandemic despite suffering staggering revenue losses.

And both parties agree Congress must fork over billions of dollars for the nationwide vaccine distribution effort that kicked off this week.

The roughly $900bn Covid bill that appears mere hours away from materialising is a far cry from the $2.2trn bill House Democrats passed on a party-line vote in October that set the baseline for their negotiations with Republicans.

“Democrats would have liked to go considerably further,” Mr Schumer admitted on Wednesday. “But this won't be the last time Congress speaks on Covid relief. Right now, we must address this emergency over the short term,” he said.

A final product less than half the size of Democrats’ previous bills will be a tough sell to progressives who have grumbled that even $2.2trn is not enough.

They have taken to calling the $1,200 stimulus checks “survival checks,” and Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has threatened to shut down the government this Friday if that programme is not re-upped in full.

Any Covid deal that emerges this week is likely to be bolted onto the massive $1.4trn government appropriations package to fund federal operations through fiscal year 2021.

Government funding lapses on Friday, and due to the convoluted nature of Senate voting procedures, Mr Sanders could single-handedly delay a vote until after that deadline as leverage for the full $1,200 direct payments instead of the pared-down $600-per-cheque proposal.

Mr Schumer indicated that Democrats will have other chances in the future to negotiate a Covid deal and that they may have more negotiating leverage with Joe Biden in the White House instead of Donald Trump.

“Make no mistake, we will work in the future to provide additional relief, as the country requires,” the minority leader said on Wednesday. “But we need to provide a platform to build on. We need to address this emergency right now. At the end of one of the most difficult years in recent American history, a vaccine has given us all a reason for hope. Let's give the country another reason. The finish line is in sight.”

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