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What's good (and what's not) about Congress' new relief package

The aid package should be bigger, and should've passed months ago, but it will make a positive difference for those who need the relief.
Image: The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.
The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

When Congress approved the CARES Act in March, it provided millions of families and businesses an important lifeline, but it was temporary. Policymakers didn't know how long the coronavirus pandemic would last or how long the economic aid would be necessary, so much of the relief initiative expired over the summer.

As the deadline neared, House Democrats took steps to stay ahead of the problem, passing an ambitious, multi-trillion-dollar package. There was a broad understanding that Republicans in the Senate and the White House would push for an alternative, but the hope at the time was that by passing an initial offer, Dems could bring the players to the table for negotiations.

That was in mid-May. What followed was a ridiculous process in which GOP leaders disagreed with each other about how and whether to act. More than seven months after House Democrats first passed an economic relief bill, a new, bipartisan agreement is finally in place.

After months of stalemate, Congress struck a deal on nearly $900 billion in Covid-19 relief, including a new round of direct payments and help for jobless Americans, families and businesses struggling in the pandemic.... Lawmakers are expected to vote on the package beginning Monday.

As far as the process is concerned, the original deadline was Friday, but Congress passed a two-day stopgap measure late last week, hoping to wrap things up by Sunday night. When the talks took a little longer than expected, lawmakers passed a one-day stopgap measure to prevent a shutdown, clearing the way for the writing of legislative text overnight and votes in the House and Senate today.

The package on the table is massive, in large part because it combines two measures: there's a $1.4 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, which lawmakers have tied to a roughly $900 billion economic relief plan. Barring any 11th-hour hiccups -- and really, one never knows -- Congress will pass the whole thing, leave town for the holidays, and send it to the White House for Donald Trump's signature.

But more important than the process is what's actually in the legislation. As NBC News' report explained, at the heart of the aid package are several key elements:

  • A federal unemployment insurance supplement of $300 a week
  • Direct aid checks worth up to $600 a person based on income
  • Over $284 billion more in loans for businesses struggling to pay rent and workers
  • $69 billion for vaccine distribution
  • $82 billion for colleges and schools
  • $25 billion in rental assistance and an extension of the moratorium on evictions
  • $45 billion for transportation, including support for the airline industry
  • $13 billion for food-assistance programs

The package should be bigger, and should've passed months ago, but it will make a positive difference for those who need the relief. Given what we learned from the way in which the CARES Act was implemented, it might be a few weeks before beneficiaries have the aid in their hands.

Republicans initially demanded a corporate liability shield, which was not included in the final bill. Similarly, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) insisted on restrictions on the Federal Reserve, which were watered down during bipartisan talks on Saturday.

On the other hand, Democrats also sought considerable aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs, and these resources were also excluded.

The relief bill is also vastly smaller than the $2 trillion plan House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanded in the late summer and fall, and roughly half the size of the plan Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered Democrats in October. (Whether Senate Republicans were prepared to go along with the $1.8 trillion plan Mnuchin put on the table is a subject of ongoing debate.)

What's more, all of this is intended to serve as a bridge of sorts to the spring, when the benefits will expire once more, and it will fall to the new Congress and the Biden White House to consider yet another relief bill.

Time will tell how those negotiations go, but there's already reason for skepticism: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested last week that he was motivated to act by concerns about his party's U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia.

There will be no comparable electoral considerations in March.

As for the outgoing president, Trump published a tweet on Saturday that read in part, "Why isn't Congress giving our people a Stimulus Bill? ... GET IT DONE."

The Republican, who's spent several months making contradictory statements about his preferences and intentions related to the aid package, played no role in the process. The self-described world-class dealmaker refused to participate in the talks and didn't know enough about the basics to join congressional leaders at the negotiating table.