U.S. Congress ready to pass $900 billion COVID-19 aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Monday was scrambling to pass a $900 billion coronavirus aid package meant to stimulate a pandemic-hit economy, following seven months of partisan bickering over the measure’s contents.

The White House-backed bill includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

“I expect we’ll get the money out by the beginning of next week – $2,400 for a family of four,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC, referring to the payments to most individuals.

The legislation also expands a small-business lending program and steers money to schools, airlines, transit systems, and vaccine distribution.

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The stimulus package, the first Congress-approved aid since April, comes as the pandemic is accelerating in the United States, infecting more than 214,000 people every day and slowing the economic recovery. More than 317,000 Americans have died.

The deal, worked out in a rare weekend session of Congress, omits the thorniest sticking points, which included Republicans’ desire for a liability shield to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits and Democrats’ request for more funding for cash-strapped state and local governments.

A last-minute dispute over emergency-lending programs administered by the Federal Reserve was also resolved late Saturday night.

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The measure is far less than the $3 trillion called for in a bill that passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in May, which the Republican-controlled Senate ignored.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened debate on the compromise version by predicting fast passage on Monday and calling it “a good bipartisan bill.”

Even so, she chastised Republicans for blocking a bigger injection of federal funds to state and local governments whose revenues have dwindled during the pandemic, even as they deal with unusual demands upon their public health workers and first responders.

“This is a big mistake,” Pelosi said, adding, “How could it be that we only have $160 billion for state and local (governments) but we have approaching $1 trillion” for a small business loan and grant program, including money appropriated earlier this year to the Paycheck Protection Program.

‘HELP IS ON THE WAY’

President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, has urged Congress to consider further stimulus for him to sign into law when he takes office on Jan. 20. “My message to everyone out there struggling right now, help is on the way,” he said in a statement.

The economic stimulus measure would be attached to a larger $1.4 trillion spending bill that would fund U.S. government activity through September 2021.

Without action by midnight (0500 GMT Tuesday), an array of federal agencies would run out of money and would have to begin furloughing workers and scaling back programs.

The bill would be the second-largest stimulus package in U.S. history, behind only the approximately $2 trillion aid bill passed in March. Economists say that money played a critical role at a time when social-distancing measures shuttered wide swaths of the world’s largest economy.

The new bill reprises many of the key pillars of the earlier package, with some modifications. Small-business aid would be expanded to struggling news outlets and TV stations, while theaters and live-music venues would get dedicated support.

Unemployed workers would get an extra $300 per week through March, down from the $600 increase in the earlier bill. An eviction ban, due to expire at the end of the year, will be extended through January.

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