SUBSCRIBE NOW
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Congress approves $900B COVID relief bill, sending to Trump

Andrew Taylor
Associated Press

Washington — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill goes to President Donald Trump for his signature, which is expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The six Republican senators voting against the bill were Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.

The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

Problem Solvers Caucus co-chairs Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., at lectern, and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., right, speak to the media with members of their caucus about the expected passage of the emergency COVID-19 relief bill, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, voted no, saying the package was “woefully inadequate” in addressing people’s needs.

“I have watched as many of my colleagues rush to provide billions to corporations and wealthy individuals, while admonishing the needs of the majority of families. Republicans continue to do all they can do to poison our society further with corporate greed, while abandoning the very people they are supposed to be working for,” Tlaib said.

“Our government failed to show up for our residents when they needed them the most, and this bill does very little to reverse that failure. The amount of help and support for our communities in this bill does not go nearly far enough, especially when our families have been waiting for over eight months for more help.”

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants, and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

The 5,593-page legislation – by far the longest bill ever – came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

“This deal is not everything I want – not by a long shot,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, R-Mass., a longstanding voice in the party’s old-school liberal wing. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether we help small businesses and restaurants or not. It’s about whether we boost (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs or not. And whether we help those dealing with a job loss or not. To me, this is not a tough call.”

Retiring Rep. Justin Amash, a Libertarian representing the Grand Rapids area, said that Congress had passed “5,593 pages they didn’t read.”

“America, stop letting this happen. Don’t vote for anyone who voted for this. It’s not okay,” Amash tweeted. “Representative government is important. Too many people have come to accept oligarchy. This doesn’t end well.”

Tlaib and Amash were the only Michigan lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Zeeland Republican, said the relief package would provide a lifeline to struggling small businesses, but “how many small businesses were forced to shut their doors for good while waiting for Washington to act?

“Speaker Pelosi’s decision to play politics with pandemic relief — only to agree to an aid package that is roughly half of what was offered earlier this year — should not be glossed over,” Huizenga said. “This decision to let the livelihood of struggling Americans be ruined should not only be a part of her legacy, it should cost her the speakership in the next Congress.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, is part of the House Problem Solvers Caucus – that joined with a bipartisan group of senators to design the basis of the relief package.

“I’ve heard from countless doctors and nurses, mom-and-pop small businesses owners, teachers, and community leaders who begged Congress to stop acting like the Grinch and provide much-needed help,” Upton said. “This package isn’t perfect but it’s a good compromise and delivers real help. With the new vaccine, there is light at the end of an extremely long tunnel, but to ensure folks can make it until then, we need this package.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said the help is long overdue and that he strongly supports additional economic stimulus payments to families, extended unemployment insurance benefits for unemployed workers, additional relief for small businesses and more resources to help with the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

“While this bipartisan compromise does not include everything I would have hoped for, it is a down payment that will provide much-needed relief to those struggling,” Kildee said. “I look forward to working with the incoming Biden administration to provide additional relief to struggling Americans in the weeks ahead.”

The Senate, meanwhile, was also on track to pass a one-week stopgap spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation followed a tortured path. Democrats played hardball up until Election Day, amid accusations that they wanted to deny Trump a victory that might help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands indeed became more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden made it clear that half a loaf was better than none.

The final bill bore ample resemblance to a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as way too little.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said the pragmatic approach of Biden was key.

“A few days ago, with a new president-elect of their own party, everything changed. Democrats suddenly came around to our position that we should find consensus, make law where we agree, and get urgent help out the door,” McConnell said.

On direct payments, the bill provides $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $1,200 to couples making up to $150,000, with payments phased out for higher incomes. An additional $600 payment will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of relief payments in the spring.

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March. That more generous benefit and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment was also half the March payment.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, has not looked into the eyes of the small-business owner on the brink of ruin,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who pushed hard for money helping his city’s transit systems, renters, theaters and restaurants.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle-ground position that the top four leaders of Congress – the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate – used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hardline positions.

“At times we felt like we were in the wilderness because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give, in order to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was gross to watch, frankly.”

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more for domestic programs into the legislation.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean-energy provisions sought by Democrats with fossil fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for the length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 – about one-half the size of Monday’s behemoth.

Detroit News Washington correspondent Melissa Nann Burke contributed