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WASHINGTON — At the end of a pandemic-plagued year that saw millions of people lose their jobs and fall into poverty, hundreds of thousands of businesses close, and over 300,000 Americans die, Congress passed a COVID relief bill that includes short-term unemployment benefits and $600 direct payments.
The Senate passed the $900 billion package 91-7 Monday evening, shortly after the House passed it by a vote of 327 to 85. It was attached to a must-pass $1.4 trillion spending bill that will prevent the government from shutting down Monday night. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.
It is the first coronavirus aid passed by Congress since the CARES Act In March, and many of those provisions expired months ago. The new bill is much smaller and contains less than what both Democrats and even the Trump White House had been proposing. For much of this year, the parties remained deadlocked, going for months without holding any serious negotiations, as they focused on the presidential election. Earlier this month Democratic leaders caved and more than halved their demands earlier this month from $2.2 trillion to about $900 billion.
A flurry of last-minute negotiations then kicked off with Senate Republicans, who were pushing for an even smaller deal. The full text of the 5,593-page bill was only released Monday afternoon, just hours before it was voted on. While the bill does include more direct payments to most US residents, they are half as big as the previous round of checks delivered this spring. It also extends federal unemployment benefits, but those too are halved, as the US is hit hard by a third wave of coronavirus cases, which could be exacerbated by the holidays.
Adults who earn up to $75,000 will receive $600 checks, and couples who earn up to $150,000 combined will receive $1,200. Parents will also receive $600 for each child dependent under the age of 17, but no money for older children or adult dependents. For people who earn above $75,000 the size of the checks are phased out at a rate of $5 for every $100 of income, drawing down to zero at $87,000 or $174,000 for joint filers.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNBC Monday that the checks should arrive next week.
Initially, the new deal did not include direct payments at all, but Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley led a last-minute charge to include checks for $1,200 identical to what was in the CARES Act. They ended up getting half of what they were seeking.
The bill also includes $300 per week in unemployment payments on top of state benefits for 11 weeks begging Dec. 26. The payments are not retroactive.
The bill includes $284 for the Paycheck Protection Program, which subsidizes businesses that keep their employees on payroll.
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The bill also ends the practice of surprise medical billing, where patients go to a hospital covered by their insurance network only to be hit with unforeseeable medical bills because the staff who treated them were out-of-network. Insurance companies will now be forced to cover those charges.
Other provisions of the package include:
$35 billion in rental assistance and an extension of a federal eviction moratorium
$22.4 billion for testing, tracing and other measures to fight the spread of COVID.
$82 billion for colleges and schools
$10 billion for childcare
$13 billion for food stamps and children nutrition program
$16 billion to airlines to pay salaries
$14 billion for transit agencies
$1 billion for Amtrak
The bill does not extend the mandate that employers offer paid sick leave to workers who become infected with COVID. Many employers have been required to offer paid leave since March but that mandate expires at the end of the year and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked an extension from being included in the bill.
Other notable provisions were left out of the bill entirely. Democrats had pushed for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid for state and local governments, arguing it was necessary to prevent them from falling into bankruptcy under the economic toll of the pandemic. Republicans characterized this aid as a “blue state bailout” and opposed it.
At the same time, Republicans were pushing for businesses to be granted broad immunity from lawsuits filed by workers and customers who contract COVID. Many Democrats fiercely opposed this. In the end, both the local aid and liability sections were taken out of the bill altogether. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress could “live to fight another day” and debate those measures in future negotiations under the Biden administration.
President-elect Joe Biden released a statement celebrating the agreement but called on Congress to start negotiating further aid in January. “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. There will be no time to waste,” said Biden, who will take office on Jan. 20.
Some Republican senators have been skeptical about the need for further aid, however. And after nine months of standstill following the CARES Act, it’s unclear how quickly they will be able to come together again.
Trump called for a bill that included direct payments to individuals but did not play an active role in negotiating the package. The White House had previously taken the lead on negotiating the CARES Act and headed up talks throughout the fall. But since the election, Trump’s staff took a backseat, and Senate Republicans took over.