US Congress approves $900 billion Covid-19 relief package

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), walks from the Senate floor as both chambers of Congress are aimed to pass the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) package in a marathon session on Capitol Hill Washington, D.C., U.S., December 21, 2020. © REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

US lawmakers on Monday took the first step toward approving a $900 billion relief package for Americans hard hit by the pandemic, as Congress raced to finalize the massive legislation ahead of a midnight deadline.

The House of Representative voted to approve the package on Monday evening after months of squabbling further complicated by the rancor of the US presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s subsequent refusal to concede defeat to Democrat Joe Biden.

The Senate was to take up the bill next and send it on to Trump, who must sign it for it to take effect.

As the Covid-19 death count rises amid a massive resurgence of the virus that further threatens the economy, Republican and Democratic legislators finally hammered out a bill after months of wrangling and partisan finger-pointing.

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The deal will spare millions of jobless workers who were days away from seeing their unemployment benefits expire, and provide a new round of cash payouts.

Small businesses will benefit from more government grants, while the package also includes rental assistance and help to families facing eviction.

“It’s a good bipartisan deal,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We will do some good with this legislation.”

But “as President-elect Joe Biden has said, it’s a first step, and we will need to do more. More to get virus assistance to crush the virus. More money to buy vaccines,” she said on the House floor.

The US is facing the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak, and the virus has surged in recent months, threatening a tentative economic recovery. The death toll has topped 319,000.

Recent data show retail sales slowed heading into the usually-strong holiday shopping season, while new applications for unemployment benefits have risen for four of the past five weeks after months of declines.

– Cash injection –

The massive package is part of a $2.3 trillion “coronabus” bill that includes a so-called omnibus bill to fund the government for the coming year.

The measure will include a new round of pandemic relief payments, and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the $600 checks will go out as early as next week.

That amounts to “$2,400 for a family of four, so much needed relief just in time for the holidays,” Mnuchin said Monday on CNBC.

While the direct payments are only half the amount provided by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress approved in March, Mnuchin said it is a “very fast way of getting money into the economy.”

The $600 payments go to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year, and will be reduced for higher incomes, while those who bring home $99,000 or more will not get a check.

The largest provision is the $275 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aid for businesses, which are government loans that convert to grants if spent on wages and rent.

The agreement also contains $25 billion in rental assistance and extends an eviction moratorium for one month.

Biden, who will be sworn in on January 20, has welcomed the agreement but said Sunday that much more will be needed to provide “support to struggling families, and investments in jobs and economic recovery.”

After months of talk, the deal seemed endangered in the final days by a dispute over a Republican-backed provision to limit the ability of the Federal Reserve to provide more emergency lending.

But Democrats were able to block that move by Republican Senator Patrick Toomey, although they were not able to insert billions of dollars in aid to state and local governments on the front line of responding to the virus impact.

© Reuters