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Congress inches closer to deal on Covid relief package after clearing major hurdle

Lawmakers overcame a stumbling block over the Federal Reserve's lending power.
Congressional Leaders Close In On Stimulus Aid Deal Below $900 Billion
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks from the Senate floor to his office in the Capitol on Wednesday.Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senior lawmakers were working Sunday to finalize legislation on coronavirus relief after they reached a compromise late Saturday on a major hurdle holding up the expected $900 billion package.

A roadblock emerged Friday as Democrats accused Republicans, namely Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, of trying to encumber the Biden administration by cutting off the Federal Reserve's emergency lending abilities under the CARES Act to protect the battered economy. Lawmakers came to an agreement on the issue late Saturday, sources said.

"Now that Democrats have agreed to a version of Sen. Toomey's important language, we can begin closing out the rest of the package to deliver much-needed relief to families, workers and businesses," a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said late Saturday.

Lawmakers worked overnight to craft compromise language, two aides said.

Speaking from the Senate floor Sunday, McConnell said he expected that the final deal would come "in a matter of hours." Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday that there were "a few issues outstanding, but I'm quite hopeful that we're closing in on an outcome."

"It appears that barring a major mishap, the Senate and House will be able to vote on legislation as early as" Sunday night, Schumer said.

Among the outstanding issues, according to sources: whether to allow small businesses to deduct loans under the Paycheck Protection Program from their taxes, a provision to provide parents with vouchers for private school and establishment of paid family leave for coronavirus-related reasons.

The final legislation hasn't been released yet, but the deal is expected to include direct payments of $600 for qualifying Americans, a federal unemployment insurance bonus of $300 a week, funds to distribute vaccines and more money for businesses struggling to pay rent and workers.

Steve Kelly, a spokesperson for Toomey, said the agreement was an "unqualified victory for taxpayers."

"Senate Republicans achieved all four of our objectives regarding the CARES Act Federal Reserve lending programs," Kelly said.

"This agreement rescinds more than $429 billion in unused CARES Act funds, definitively ends the CARES Act lending facilities by Dec. 31, 2020, stops these facilities from being restarted and forbids them from being duplicated without congressional approval," he added. "This agreement will preserve Fed independence and prevent Democrats from hijacking these programs for political and social policy purposes."

Democrats, on the other hand, said the new language was a concession to Toomey and his Republican allies.

"After going back and forth all day with Leader Schumer, Sen. Toomey has agreed to drop the broad language in his proposal that would have prevented the Fed chair from establishing similar facilities in the future to the ones created in March," a senior Democratic aide said.

Congressional leaders settled on a framework midweek that was expected to include a $300 federal unemployment bonus, a new round of direct payments, small-business funding and money to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. Months of fits and starts of unsuccessful talks led to lapses in various provisions of the CARES Act, including the $600-per-week federal unemployment bonus, aggravating the suffering of millions of Americans who have struggled to make ends meet.

The agreement had been expected earlier in the week, but it hit a roadblock after some Republicans demanded an end to Fed authorities over emergency lending. Democrats pushed back, accusing the GOP of seeking to sabotage the economy overseen by President Joe Biden.

The two parties had long been at odds over price tag and policy, but negotiations were kick-started in recent weeks by a bipartisan group of moderate senators and House members, known as the Problem Solvers Caucus, which quietly began informal discussions to work out a viable framework.

Their talks resulted in an agreement on a $748 billion proposal that became the basis of negotiations among McConnell, Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as well as the Trump administration.

Alex Moe and Sahil Kapur reported from Washington, and Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles.