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After Months Of Partisan Squabbling, Lawmakers Reach COVID-19 Relief Deal

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Millions of Americans struggling during this pandemic will soon get $600 checks and some other additional help from the federal government. After many months of delay, Congress has reached a deal on a new round of coronavirus relief aid. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer announced the agreement last night.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: As our citizens continue battling this coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Make no mistake about it, this agreement is far from perfect, but it will deliver emergency relief to a nation in the throes of a genuine emergency.

GREENE: Now, among other provisions, this roughly $900 billion measure will include more small business aid, more unemployment assistance, also money for vaccine distribution. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is here. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So give us the latest here. How did this all come together?

GRISALES: Yes. Leaders are finally on the same page when it comes to these key efforts of this deal. But lawmakers still note there are some last-minute details to sort through and finalize, such as sharing actual text of the legislation and having members review that text. We should also note, while they were celebrating this breakthrough last night, they were also blaming each other for the delays in reaching this point. That said, if all goes as expected, we should see Congress vote on this final massive package today.

It also includes a must-pass annual government funding bill. Lawmakers didn't reach a deal on that in time for the start of the new fiscal year. So there's been a series of short-term stopgap measures to get us here. Last night, lawmakers passed another one to get us to an expected finish line today.

GREENE: So assuming that this all gets written up into a bill and it does get passed, I mean, what - talk more about what's in it. What should Americans expect?

GRISALES: Well, we mentioned the direct checks of up to $600 for Americans. And we'll also see $300 extra in weekly unemployment benefits, about $300 billion for small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, money for hospitals and food security programs and rental assistance, as well as help for schools. All told, this $900 billion plan could arrive as a number of provisions were set to expire at the end of this month tied to a package passed earlier this year.

GREENE: I mean, so many people have been waiting for this and, frankly, wondering why it was taking lawmakers so long to come to an agreement. It sounds like the logjam here was broken late on Saturday. What did it come down to it? What was the compromise that they had to reach here?

GRISALES: Yes. This was about a very specific provision by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. He wanted to limit lending programs for the Federal Reserve. This was triggered by an earlier stimulus bill known as the CARES Act that was passed in March. Democrats said his language was overly broad, and they wanted to make sure President-elect Joe Biden could launch similar lending programs with the Fed, so they were able to reach an agreement to narrow the impact. And both sides were pleased with the outcome. Democrats say it doesn't hurt a future ability to restart lending facilities, while Toomey told reporters on a call Sunday that his initial language was too broad.

GREENE: So the president presumably has to sign this, of course, before it could actually go into effect. Where is President Trump on these talks and this bill?

GRISALES: He's been quite absent. His Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has been involved in the initial talks, but this is really from congressional leaders. Trump had called for bigger relief checks on Twitter, echoing progressives and conservatives and calling on Congress to get it done. Now we're told he will sign this plan. For his part, President-elect Biden has also called on Congress to pass a relief bill swiftly, but he's also made sure to call it a down payment on additional aid when he takes office.

GREENE: All right. It's been a long road and, as you say, a few more details to be worked out.

GRISALES: Yes.

GREENE: Yeah - dotted I's and crossing T's. But it sounds like we're getting pretty close to having this happen. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.