U.S. Congress’ weekend coronavirus relief talks hit obstacle

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U.S. lawmakers scrambled on Saturday to complete a $900 billion package of legislation to help Americans struggling with the steep health and economic costs of the coronavirus pandemic, amid fears a dispute over Federal Reserve lending rules could stall a deal.

“We’re right within reach,” Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members of her party on a call discussing the negotiations, according to a person who was on the call.

And in the Senate, which held an unusual weekend session as negotiations went on, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped for an agreement as soon as Saturday.

“We need to pass these measures with a big, bipartisan vote and get them signed into law without further delay,” he said, calling the pandemic “an ongoing five-alarm national crisis.”

Both Republicans and Democrats said the last major sticking point was a Republican push, led by Senator Patrick Toomey, to rein in Federal Reserve lending programs.

“That’s the big thing,” Pelosi told reporters.

The dispute raised concern as the day passed that the talks could be delayed for days, or break down altogether. Toomey was one of a small group of senators seen having a heated discussion in the Senate chamber, before going to an afternoon meeting in Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s office.

Afterward, Toomey said he did not have a timeframe, but said, “I think that we should be able to get a deal done.”

Members of Congress are under intense pressure to finish the largest relief package since the early weeks of the pandemic, when Congress passed deals providing more than $4 trillion in aid. COVID-19 has killed 311,000 Americans, by far the most in the world, and put millions out of work, with unemployment rising. Economists say growth will likely remain sluggish until vaccines are widely available in mid-2021.

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Adding urgency to calls for action are the looming Christmas holiday, a government shutdown possibly at midnight on Sunday and two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 that will determine whether Republicans keep control of the U.S. Senate.

Lawmakers were not sure when a deal would be announced, but no vote was expected before Sunday afternoon. John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said the vote could slip to Monday.

“We’re on the home stretch, we’re on the glide path and I think we’re going to get this done, and help out the American people,” Thune said.

LIMITING BIDEN?

The Republican proposal would guarantee that the Federal Reserve cannot renew emergency lending programs for small businesses and state and local governments after Jan. 1, when they expire under a coronavirus relief bill passed in March.

Republican opponents said those programs are an unnecessary government interference in private business that politicizes the Fed and accused Democrats of seeking to extend them into 2021 as a backdoor way to provide unchecked funds for state and local governments controlled by members of their party.

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Democrats in turn accused the Republicans of trying to tie the Fed’s hands in order to limit Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s options for boosting the flagging economy after he takes office on Jan. 20.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump, who insists Biden did not win the Nov. 3 election and talks of running again in 2024, said it supports the Toomey initiative.

The parties also disagree over how best to aid arts venues closed by COVID-19 restrictions, and how much emergency money should go to local governments for supplies like personal protective equipment for schools.

Many issues have been settled. The legislation is expected to include one-off $600 checks for most Americans, enhanced unemployment benefits of $300 per week, help for states distributing coronavirus vaccines and more assistance for small businesses.

The deal does not include liability protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a provision pushed by Republicans that has long been unacceptable to Democrats. Nor does it include the extensive aid to state and local governments Democrats wanted.

Congressional leaders plan to attach the package to a $1.4 trillion spending bill funding the government through September 2021. Government funding was due to expire on Friday, but lawmakers approved a two-day stopgap bill to buy more time. Trump signed it on Friday.

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