US Congress reaches deal on Covid-19 aid package, plans votes for Monday

The package would be the second-largest economic stimulus in US history. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US congressional leaders said on Sunday (Dec 20) they have reached agreement on a US$900 billion (S$1.19 trillion) package to provide the first new aid in months to an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, with votes likely on Monday.

The package would be the second-largest economic stimulus in US history, following a US$2.3 trillion aid Bill passed in March.

The deal comes as the pandemic accelerates, infecting more than 214,000 people in the country each day. More than 317,000 Americans have already died.

"At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, following months of contentious debate.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the package should have enough support to pass both chambers of Congress. He said Democrats would push for more aid after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan 20.

"Anyone who thinks this Bill is enough does not know what's going on in America," Mr Schumer said at a news conference.

President Donald Trump supports the Bill and will sign it into law, White House spokesman Ben Williamson said.

The package would give US$600 direct payments to individuals and boost unemployment payments by US$300 a week.

It also includes hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses,
food assistance, transit and healthcare. It extends a moratorium on foreclosures and provides US$25 billion in rental aid.

Lawmakers said they had resolved disputes over the Federal Reserve's pandemic lending authority and other issues that had forced negotiations into the weekend.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives will likely vote on the package on Monday, with the Republican-controlled Senate to follow, according to House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer.

Congress aims to include the coronavirus aid package in a US$1.4 trillion spending Bill funding government programmes through September 2021.

But government funding is due to expire at midnight Sunday (1pm Singapore time Monday).

The House and the Senate voted to extend funding through Monday, buying more time to pass the coronavirus package and the larger government spending Bill. Mr Trump signed the extension into law.

The relief Bill leaves out two of the most contentious elements in the negotiations: legal protections for businesses from coronavirus lawsuits, which had been sought by Republicans, and the substantial aid for state and local governments advocated by Democrats.

But the package helps state and local governments indirectly by providing billions for schools, coronavirus testing and other expenses, Mr Schumer said.

It also includes elements unrelated to the pandemic: a bipartisan provision that aims to end surprise medical billing, and one that authorises flood control and other water-related projects.

The Bill would allow Federal Reserve emergency lending programmes to expire on Dec 31 for businesses and state and local governments, which Republicans said were an unnecessary government interference in private business.

But it does not prevent similar programmes from being created.

The pandemic will stand as the largest crisis facing Mr Biden's new administration, although signs of hope have emerged as the United States has begun vaccinating people against the highly contagious respiratory disease.

In the 11 months since the first cases of the new coronavirus were documented in the United States, Covid-19 has put millions of Americans out of work, with unemployment rising.

Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.

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