© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Politics

Congressional Leaders Reach Deal On $900 Billion COVID-19 Relief Package

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., seen here on Capitol Hill in May, had proposed curbing the Federal Reserve's ability to offer emergency loans.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., seen here on Capitol Hill in May, had proposed curbing the Federal Reserve's ability to offer emergency loans.

Updated at 6:27 p.m. ET

After months of partisan squabbling, congressional leaders have reached agreement on a nearly $900 billion COVID-19 relief package.

"At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Sunday evening.

"As our citizens continue battling the coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone," he added.

McConnell was followed on the floor by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who said: "Make no mistake about it: This agreement is far from perfect. But it will deliver emergency relief to a nation in the throes of a genuine emergency."

Though both leaders blamed the other side for the package's months-long delay, Schumer said the deal was forged after "weeks of intense, bipartisan negotiation."

It's unclear when the chambers will vote on the measure. An additional stop-gap spending bill is likely required, as government funding is set to expire at midnight.

Among its provisions, the package includes a new round of direct payments to qualifying Americans, worth up to $600 per adult and child; a boost in weekly unemployment benefits; and funds for small-business aid and vaccine distribution.

If it passes, it would be the first major piece of legislation in response to the coronavirus pandemic since the $2 trillion CARES Act passed in March.

Final standoff

The final sticking point holding up the package centered on a Republican-backed provision led by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would require the Federal Reserve to seek congressional approval for certain lending authorities.

On Saturday, Toomey argued on the Senate floor that three pandemic-related lending programs should end because they've "achieved their purpose."

Democrats pushed back, arguing that Toomey's provision would also prevent future Treasury secretaries from restarting the lending programs.

But legislators say they reached a compromise on the issue late Saturday, after hours of talks between Toomey and Schumer.

According to a senior Democratic aide: "Toomey has agreed to drop the broad language in his proposal that would have prevented the Fed chair from establishing similar facilities in the future to the ones created [by the CARES Act] in March."

Toomey's office said in a statement Sunday morning that the "tentative agreement is an unqualified victory for taxpayers," adding that the deal "will preserve Fed independence and prevent Democrats from hijacking these programs for political and social policy purposes."

In a call with reporters Sunday, Toomey pushed back on characterizations that his proposal was politically motivated and designed to weaken the Biden administration's ability to respond to future crises, calling it "completely and utterly false."

He said his stance on the issue of closing these pandemic-related lending facilities has been consistent since the first drafting of COVID-19 response legislation in the spring.

"I was the guy in March — when I don't think anybody knew who the next president was going to be — I was arguing that we should have a Sept. 30 close on [these facilities]," Toomey said. "I didn't get my way on that. I settled for Dec. 31, and that's what we put in the statute."

Toomey said he was concerned by an "aggressive effort" from some Democrats "to make the case that these programs don't end on Dec. 31." But he acknowledged his initial language on the issue was "too broad" and "might have captured facilities that we didn't intend to capture." That language was being narrowed on Sunday.

"The Toomey legislation was the last significant stumbling block to a bipartisan agreement," Schumer said on Sunday afternoon.

"Not going to be the Grinch"

As NPR's Kelsey Snell reported Saturday, congressional leaders had resolved nearly every other sticking point, from ironing out issues with food stamps and disaster funds to dropping months-long fights over state and local funding and liability reform.

Saturday's compromise came as the clock ticked down on a two-day stopgap spending bill that Congress approved Friday to enable lawmakers to try to finish negotiations.

Both Schumer and McConnell had previously vowed to stay through the Christmas holiday if need be to get a relief measure passed.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on ABC's This Week added: "The great news is Congress is not going to be the Grinch. We're going to get this package done."

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed reporting.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.