AFTER MONTHS OF STALLED negotiations and partisan squabbling, Congress passed $900 billion in emergency coronavirus relief in addition to a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the government through late next year.
The historic legislation is the second largest stimulus in U.S. history and comes more than eight months after Congress overwhelmingly passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in late March. The federal government has now spent a total of more than $3 trillion to combat the pandemic, but since the passage of the CARES Act in the spring and the absence of more aid until now, the U.S. has seen a resurgence of the virus with a record number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations and millions more Americans falling into poverty and losing their jobs.
In a series of Monday night votes, the House easily passed the mammoth, 5,600-page legislation through two separate votes on a bipartisan basis. Shortly after, the package advanced in the Senate, 92-6, and now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature. Congress also passed a seven-day stopgap measure to keep the government running and give Trump time to sign the omnibus bill since funding dries up at midnight.
Both parties indicated that the targeted coronavirus aid doesn’t address all of their concerns but many acknowledge that more aid will likely be considered after President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month. The new coronavirus aid includes $600 stimulus checks, $300 a week in enhanced federal unemployment benefits, new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program – which aims to help small businesses keep employees on payroll – and a myriad other provisions aimed to help Americans and businesses with the economic fallout. The bill also funds the government through next September and includes a number of tax cuts.
“None of us think this legislation is perfect, but a big bipartisan majority of us recognize the incredible amount of good it will do when we send it to the president’s desk,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said earlier on Monday. “The American people have waited long enough. I’m glad for our country that we’re now moving ahead together.”
The late-night votes are the culmination of weeks of negotiations and renewed pressure to pass additional relief before the year’s end. The approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has given the country a glimmer of hope. But the U.S. is still struggling to tame the virus before the general public can get vaccinated with a death toll that exceeds 319,000 and many hospital ICUs reaching full capacity.
Congress worked through the weekend to put the finishing touches on the bill and hammer out the last-minute disagreements including over limitations of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers. Lawmakers also had to pass three short-term government funding measures over the course of the week to allow for further negotiations and avert a government shutdown. But negotiators said they reached a deal in principle late Sunday and worked through Monday afternoon to finalize the text of the bill.
The new COVID-19 aid provides a second round of stimulus checks, though they’ll be half of the amount of the first installment under the CARES Act. Individuals making under $75,000 in the previous tax year will receive $600, while couples earning less than $150,000 will get $1,200. An additional $600 will be given per child. The amount will start to phase out for individuals and couples who exceed the annual income thresholds.
The legislation also partially restores the enhanced federal unemployment benefits that expired over the summer, giving those who lost their job an additional $300 a week – on top of state benefits – for nearly three months. The weekly benefits will start after Dec. 26 and expire by March 14. Under the CARES Act, the enhanced benefits were $600 a week but the federal jobless benefits ended in late July. But the current package also extends other unemployment provisions including one that provides assistance to freelancers, gig workers and those who are self-employed.
Among other things, the stimulus package provides billions more for the Paycheck Protection Program, funding for COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution, money to help K-12 schools and colleges to reopen, a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium, greater funds for food stamps and a grant program to help struggling live venues, movie theaters and museums.
While both parties were praising the imminent passage of a deal, there was still plenty of blame to go around for why Congress hasn’t passed any additional coronavirus relief since the spring. Republicans argued that Democrats blocked a trillion dollars in relief back in July and refused to budge on their much larger relief bill which the GOP dubbed a “liberal wish list.” Democrats, who passed a $3.4 trillion bill in the House in May, insisted that it was the GOP who stood in the way of more aid. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York pointed to past comments from McConnell that Congress should take a “pause” on approving more aid.
Some parts of the stimulus package are expected to kick in within days of the bill’s passage. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Monday interview that Americans who qualify for direct deposit will start seeing the stimulus checks in their bank accounts by early next week.
“The good news is this is a very, very fast way of getting money into the economy. Let me emphasize: People are going to see this money at the beginning of next week,” Mnuchin told CNBC.
And lawmakers, particularly Democrats, maintain that more aid will come in the months ahead. Biden is keeping the pressure on Congress to pass more relief once he takes office on Jan. 20, though much of that could depend on which party wins the majority in the Senate. The double Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5 will determine whether Democrats achieve unified government or if Republicans keep their slim majority.
Plus, Congress will likely have to grapple once again with the thorniest provisions that were left out of the current package: Democrats’ push for state, local and tribal aid and GOP efforts for liability protections to shield business, hospitals and universities from COVID-related lawsuits.
“Immediately, starting in the new year, Congress will need to get to work on support for our COVID-19 plan, for support to struggling families, and investments in jobs and economic recovery,” Biden said in a Sunday night statement. “There will be no time to waste.”
Here is some of what is included in the $900 billion stimulus:
Stimulus checks: provides $600 stimulus checks for individuals making under $75,000, $1,200 for couples earning less than $150,000, $600 per child; for those who make more than $75,000, the amount will start to phase out and cut people off who earn more than $99,000.
Federal unemployment benefits: grants a weekly $300 starting after Dec. 26 and ending on or before March 14, 2021
Paycheck Protection Program: provides $284 billion to help small businesses keep workers on payroll with forgivable loans; the bill also allows businesses with under 300 employees to apply for a second loan; some of the funding is reserved for minority-owned businesses, while $15 billion is prioritized for suffering live venues, independent movie theaters and museums.
Rental assistance: extends the eviction moratorium that was set to expire at the end of the year until Jan. 31, 2021 and grants $25 billion to help people pay for rent and utilities.
Food assistance: provides $13 billion in additional funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
Vaccines and testing: provides more than $60 billion to help combat the pandemic, including the purchasing and distribution of vaccines as well as the expansion of testing operations.
Education: provides $54 billion to help reopen K-12 schools.
Transportation and airlines: gives billions for public transit systems and Amtrak as well as $15 billion to help the airline industry retain employees; the bill stipulates that passenger air carriers and contractors must “refrain from conducting involuntary furloughs or reducing pay rates and benefits until” March 31.