US CONGRESS and COVID 19 new round
C19 world news
December 17 2020 .
By Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the coronavirus pandemic roared to new record highs across the United States, it lit a fire in the U.S. Congress, where Republicans and Democrats were scrambling to pass a new round of aid after months of partisan finger-pointing and inaction.
Even as they contemplated passing a third stopgap measure to give them a few more days to agree on final amounts, lawmakers from both parties said that COVID-19's worsening toll meant that failure to agree was no longer an option.
"Today, this week, we’re seeing more deaths due to COVID than ever; the fact that even with a vaccine coming in my state we are at our highest rate ever for transmission of the virus, for hospitalizations," said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
"That’s the difference … the calendar, the passage of time, and the passing of lives," Murkowski said when asked by reporters why a coronavirus aid bill was gaining momentum so long after the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a $3 trillion bill in mid-May that died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Hospitalizations and deaths due to the pandemic were rising at an alarming rate in the United States, which has registered over 17 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 309,000 deaths — by far the most in the world.
With winter setting in across much of the country, forcing people to spend more time inside with each other where transmission of the disease could get worse, the medical community is warning of difficult months ahead, even as a vaccine is now in the early days of distribution.
Republicans also have a wary eye on the impact inaction might have on a pair of U.S. Senate special elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, which will decide whether their party maintains majority control of the Senate for the next two years or hands it over to Democrats.
That $3 trillion bill was an opening bid by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But throughout the spring and part of the summer, Republicans refused to counter with a bill of their own. Senate Majority Leader and Republican Mitch McConnell argued that time was needed to assess the direction of the pandemic and the effectiveness of $3 trillion already pumped into the U.S. economy via emergency aid.
Now, House and Senate leaders are negotiating an approximately $900 billion bill that would be attached to a $1.4 trillion measure to fund federal programs through next September. The bill, or a stopgap to extend spending, needs to pass by Friday to avoid a shutdown of much of the federal government.
Lawmakers in both parties said they wanted to avoid a shutdown.
LINES AT FOOD BANKS
Moderate Democratic Representative Dean Phillips told National Public Radio that the photographs of cars lining up at food banks made him conclude that passing coronavirus relief was Congress' top mission — so much so that he warned Pelosi that failing to do so would mean that in early January he would not vote for her to serve another two-year term as House speaker.
While congressional leaders agreed that substantial progress had been made in negotiations, there still were thorny problems to iron out.
Republicans were trying to ensure that the Federal Reserve's emergency lending program that was enacted earlier this year ended this month, a move that Democrats oppose.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, a Republican, told reporters he was negotiating for a rental assistance program that would "avoid the need for an eviction moratorium."
Negotiators were in varying stages of debates over increased food aid for the poor, an increase in broadband funding, especially for rural areas, and the elimination of "surprise billing" for medical procedures, according to lawmakers and aides.
The government funding-coronavirus aid bill, if it comes together, would also have an immediate impact on states that are grappling with a shortage of funds for administering the newly-developed COVID-19 vaccine.
McConnell said that if a deal is not reached by midnight Friday, he would insist that lawmakers put off a Christmas break until one is reached. That would necessitate, he said, passage of a "very, very" short stopgap measure to keep the government running.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has talked about a temporary bill possibly running through next Tuesday.
The coronavirus legislation is expected to include stimulus checks of about $600, extended unemployment benefits, help for states distributing the vaccine and assistance for small businesses struggling through the pandemic as millions have been thrown out of work.
Two contentious issues appear to have been left by the wayside. The measure was not expected to include a dedicated funding stream for state and local governments, a Democratic priority, or new protections for companies from lawsuits related to the pandemic, something high on the Republican agenda.
But there was a dispute over whether to increase reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to local governments for expenses related to COVID-19, like personal protective equipment for schools. Republicans say it could be a back-door way of providing aid to states experiencing fiscal problems unrelated to the pandemic.
Lawmakers were discussing $300 weekly in federal unemployment benefits – which would also be half the amount passed last spring, that expired in the summer – and about $330 billion to help small businesses, Thune said.
The $900 billion price tag for the package partially would be paid for by more than $400 billion in repurposed funds from other parts of the budget, McConnell said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)