Congress passes long-awaited Covid relief bill and government funding plan

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    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walks back to her office after opening the House floor following an agreement of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) aid package the night before on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., December 21, 2020.

    Ken Cedeno | Reuters

    Congress passed a mammoth coronavirus relief and government spending package Monday night as it moves to inject long-delayed aid into the fight against a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis.

    Both chambers easily approved the more than $2 trillion legislation in votes that dragged late into the night. Congressional leaders attached $900 billion in pandemic aid to a $1.4 trillion measure to fund the government through Sept. 30.

    The House approved the package in a 359-53 vote. The Senate then passed it by a 92-6 margin.

    At the same time, Congress passed a seven-day stopgap spending bill to keep the government open during the time it takes for the full-year legislation to get to President Donald Trump‘s desk.

    The bill would send needed help to Americans for the first time since the spring — though it will come too late for families that have struggled to eat and stay in their homes, or small businesses that have already had to close their doors for good. The package includes a boost to jobless benefits, more small business loans, another $600 direct payment and funds to streamline critical distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, among a bevy of other provisions.

    Trump is expected to sign it into law in the coming days, weeks before he will leave office.

    As Congress rushed to approve one of the biggest rescue plans in American history, lawmakers had only a few hours to digest the more than 5,000-page legislation. They aimed to beat two key deadlines: the expiration of pandemic-era unemployment programs that would cause 12 million people to lose benefits the day after Christmas, and the lapse of a federal eviction moratorium that could leave tens of millions of people vulnerable to losing their homes at the end of the month.

    Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, likely will not wait long to seek more aid. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called it “a good bill” but said it “cannot be the end of the story.”

    Among the key provisions in the legislation, it adds a $300 per week federal unemployment supplement through mid-March and extends programs making freelancers and gig workers eligible for benefits. It sends payments of $600 to individuals who earn up to $75,000 and couples filing jointly who make up to $150,000. The bill adds another $600 for every child.

    The measure puts $284 billion into Paycheck Protection Program small business loans. It directs more than $8 billion into vaccine distribution, along with $20 billion to ensure Americans receive shots for free. The bill also puts at least $20 billion more into Covid-19 testing and contact tracing.

    The bill extends the federal eviction moratorium through Jan. 31 and fund $25 billion in rental assistance. It directs $13 billion to food aid to increase the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit by 15%. The bill also puts $82 billion into education and $45 billion into transportation.

    The package includes $15 billion in payroll support for U.S. air carriers that are reeling from the pandemic. The additional funding requires airlines to call back more than 32,000 workers they furloughed this fall and keep employees on payroll through the end of March. The new round of aid comes on top of the $25 billion carriers received under the CARES Act last March.

    Earlier Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the bill a “historic rescue package” and said Americans have “waited long enough” for additional aid.

    The bill’s passage follows months of failure by lawmakers to send more help during a public health crisis that has killed more than 310,000 people and an economic collapse that sent millions into poverty. After lawmakers approved the more than $2 trillion CARES Act in March, Democrats passed a more than $3 trillion aid bill in the House in May.

    Republicans for several months questioned the need for more federal assistance. Then by July, McConnell started to back a roughly $500 billion plan.

    Democrats later passed another more than $2 trillion package in October, while the party blocked $500 billion proposals in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., repeatedly cited a fundamental disagreement between the parties over just how dire the crisis was and how large of a role the federal government should take in it.

    McConnell accused Democrats of taking an all-or-nothing approach.

    A last-ditch push by Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to reach a deal before the Nov. 3 election failed. Then, a bipartisan Senate and House group’s efforts negotiations toward an agreement in recent weeks helped to restart discussions among congressional leaders.

    While most of Congress has cheered the latest bill as at least an initial step to buoy the country during the crises, economists and Democrats have said the country will need more relief. President-elect Joe Biden and his allies in Congress have stressed they will immediately push for more aid after the incoming president takes office on Jan. 20 — including new aid for state and local governments.

    “We advance this bill today as a first step. … We are ready for the next step,” Pelosi wrote to House Democrats on Monday.

    — CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this report

    Update: This story was updated to reflect the bill passed the Senate in a 92-6 vote. The wrong vote tally was initially announced on the Senate floor.

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