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Direct cash payments likely as lawmakers near Covid aid deal

A new round of stimulus checks is expected to be included, sources familiar with the negotiations say, but the dollar amount is not clear.

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and the White House are nearing agreement on a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief deal that will likely include a new round of direct payments, three sources familiar with the negotiations said Wednesday.

The emerging package will include enhanced federal jobless benefits, small-business funding, and money to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The dollar amount of the stimulus payments has not yet been determined — some say it will probably be $600 per person while others said it may be higher.

It was not immediately clear what the income cutoff would be. Lawmakers expressed optimism that the legislation would be completed late Wednesday or by Thursday, indicating a major breakthrough after months of discord between the two parties.

The proposal, which is still being finalized and does not yet have leadership agreement, will exclude liability protections for employers or state or local funding, sources said. The two have been sticking points and prevented Congress from passing meaningful Covid-19 legislation for months.

On Wednesday, leaders of both parties sounded more hopeful than they've been in months.

"It's not a done deal yet. But we are very close," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

The new signs of progress come after a day of meetings among the four congressional leaders. A deal would break months of stalemate and partisan sniping, while giving fresh hope for a relief package ahead of the holidays as Covid-19 cases surge across the United States.

"We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday. "We committed to continuing these urgent discussions until we have an agreement, and we agreed we will not leave town until we've made law."

Two aides familiar with the talks said the emerging plan would seek "other avenues" to deliver assistance to state and local governments, which has been a priority of Democrats.

According to a Democratic source, Schumer told senators on a Zoom call Wednesday that Democrats secured $25 billion to set up a program to give emergency rental assistance to families affected by Covid-19, which can be used to pay past due rent, future rent or related expenses.

Negotiations between party leaders began in earnest after a bipartisan working group released two Covid relief proposals totaling $908 billion earlier in the week, seeking to bridge the differences.

That plan did not include direct payments. But things shifted after bipartisan pressure from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as well as House progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. President Donald Trump has also been a vocal supporter of cash payments.

"It's progress. A week ago, there was no discussion of direct payments, which to me is the most important thing that the American people want and need. People are hurting," Sanders told NBC News in an interview.

"I believe they should be $1,200 for adults and $500 for kids. Where we're at right now, as I understand it, is $600 to $700 for adults, $600 kids, or something like that," he said. "It's a step forward, I'm gonna do my best to keep pushing to see that we got up to $1,200."

The logjam began to ease after top Democrats, including Durbin and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested dropping the state and local relief, as well as liability protections, for the current round of talks in order to come to an agreement.

The optimistic tone shift came after Schumer, McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met late into the evening Tuesday with Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin joining the negotiations by phone.

Mnuchin suggested direct payments in the range of $900, one source said.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters the payments are being discussed at a level of "$600 to $700 per individual."

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"Hopefully the package comes together," Thune said. "The House will move on it first and then we'll get it over here, and we can wrap things up."

The urgency is high as a handful of Covid-19 protections will expire in the coming days unless a bill is passed, including jobless benefits on the day after Christmas.

Lawmakers are trying to hammer out a final deal by Friday, when Congress hits the deadline to pass legislation to keep the government funded. Leaders from both parties hope to attach the Covid-19 aid package to the government funding bill.

"As far as the deadline on Friday — it could, I mean by the time everything gets processed, but I think there's a real incentive to get it done by then," Thune said. "I think both sides are sufficiently motivated given the time of the year and everything that's at stake and trying to get virus relief out there."

Julie Tsirkin and Alex Moe contributed.