Fine print issues snag tentative pact on coronavirus relief bill

Talks ongoing over scope of tax rebates, aid to businesses, unemployment insurance and more

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer walks to a virtual meeting with HHS Secretary-designate Xavier Becerra and Surgeon General-designate Dr. Vivek Murthy in Washington on Wednesday.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer walks to a virtual meeting with HHS Secretary-designate Xavier Becerra and Surgeon General-designate Dr. Vivek Murthy in Washington on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 16, 2020 at 8:07pm

Congressional leaders started Wednesday hoping to finalize a deal on a $900 billion COVID-19 aid package, but last-minute obstacles and fine-tuning indicated negotiations would bleed into Thursday.

The biggest sign that negotiations wouldn’t wrap up Wednesday came around 6:45 p.m. as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer sent out the House’s schedule for Thursday. It did not list the omnibus measure that would carry the aid deal, even as an item for possible consideration, meaning the House would not vote until at least Friday when government funding is set to expire at midnight.

That suggests another stopgap will be needed to prevent a partial shutdown, at least to give the Senate time to process the massive bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi wasn’t ready to announce that step, but didn’t rule it out.

“We’ll be ready when we’re ready,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday. “A lot of writing goes into it and the rest.”

A coronavirus relief deal is the main holdup, as negotiators have largely finalized a $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations bill. After months of delay and finger-pointing, an aid package started to come together quickly when the top four leaders huddled for a few hours Tuesday night and exchanged paper into Wednesday morning. They announced they were close to a deal.

But negotiators still had several details they were working through Wednesday -- even on noncontroversial items like small-business aid. Democrats were also trying to find a way to provide some emergency relief for states outside of direct aid that leaders agreed to leave out of the deal, vexing some Republicans.

[Congressional leaders near $900B coronavirus relief deal]

The size and income cutoff of tax rebate checks for households, the duration of a supplemental unemployment benefit and whether individuals could qualify for both of those benefits were among the unresolved details, lawmakers said.

'Fine details'

Around 5 p.m. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters there were “a couple” sticking points negotiators still had to work through.

“We've made progress,” the California Republican said. “Now it's just the fine details that we've got to get done, but those are the most important ones.”

McCarthy declined to elaborate. “It’s better if I negotiate in person,” he said, though it wasn’t clear if any more in-person meetings were planned.

Shortly after, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters the leaders were still talking. "We're still close,” the Kentucky Republican said. “We're gonna get there."

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Throughout the day negotiators struck an optimistic tone while acknowledging the clock was working against them.

“I think there's still a good chance we can get done by Friday, but [McConnell] said we should anticipate the possibility we could be here this weekend,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said.

Hoyer said he wanted to meet the Friday deadline, but said leaders were prepared to introduce another stopgap measure if necessary. President Donald Trump signed a one-week funding extension late Friday.

“If we need three or four more days we’re going to take such time as it’s necessary to fund the government,” Hoyer said. “I’m not for shutting down the government and we’ll do what it takes to [avoid] that.”

Unanswered questions

Rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties were curious Wednesday to see how their leaders would balance unemployment benefits and the tax rebate checks. Democrats and some Republicans had called for both to be in a final deal, but most Republicans wanted to keep total spending on those areas limited to about one-third of the overall package.

Several lawmakers said they were hearing the tax rebate checks were likely to end up around $600 or $700 per adult and child with some income and other restrictions modeled on those in the March aid package. That law provided $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for families making up to $150,000, with the amounts phased out by $5 for every $100 above the threshold.

Lawmakers also heard that leaders were scaling back the duration of the federal unemployment benefit to help supplement the cost of the tax payments, in order to keep the total cost of the package around $900 billion. Some Democrats weren’t happy about it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers that produced a $908 billion proposal that has served as the basis for the leadership negotiations had a $300 weekly unemployment insurance add-on lasting for 16 weeks. The emerging deal is expected to keep the amount at $300 per week, but for a shorter time.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said there was also discussion about adding language to prevent individuals who receive the extra unemployment benefit from also getting rebate checks.

Aid to small businesses, which has been an item with consistent bipartisan support, was also subject to haggling.

The total amount was estimated at around $330 billion, but Senate Small Business ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin called that number “a little squishy.”

One of the issues negotiators were struggling with was how to provide aid to struggling industries like restaurants and entertainment venues with a limited pot of funds for all small businesses, including a “second draw” on the popular Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans that lapsed in August.

“The problem is they're not giving us enough money,” Cardin, D-Md., said.

Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, whose panel oversees housing matters, said there were outstanding questions on rental assistance, like whether aid would go to the states to set up their own systems, or run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There was also a question of whether it would be a voucher so payment goes directly to landlords instead of cash distributed to renters.

Democrats on Wednesday were also pushing to provide an emergency backstop for states through a $90 billion Federal Emergency Management Agency fund. They argued this was needed since there would be no direct assistance for states and localities. But Republicans were concerned it was a backdoor attempt at getting money Democrats had backed off from earlier to get the GOP to drop demands to shield businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits.

One Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FEMA fund would only be tapped in case of disasters, and thus nullifies GOP concerns about giving states direct aid they could use to address preexisting budget shortfalls from poor fiscal management.

In addition to all the unresolved coronavirus aid matters, it was also unclear what additional year-end legislation would make it into the omnibus.
Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said "there was good hope of reaching an agreement" on a package extending temporary tax provisions.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass, was more ambivalent, noting there are “a couple of hurdles” to overcome, but that negotiators “could conceivably” reach an agreement in time to get tax extenders into the big bill.

Neal was more optimistic than Grassley, however, about a technical corrections measure for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement making it in the final deal. “I think we pretty much reached an agreement on that,” Neal said.

Grassley’s take was less promising. "There ought to be, but I don't know that there will be," he said.

'Psychology of negotiations'

The delay in finalizing the year-end package proved frustrating for lawmakers like Hoyer, who often tries to no avail to keep his colleagues on schedule.

"Why this takes so long is because we procrastinate and we pretend, just one more day and we'll get a better deal. It's just the psychology of negotiations," the Maryland Democrat told reporters.

"I think everybody's trying to get there and I'm hopeful we'll get there tonight," Hoyer added. "But what do I know? I'm not in the room."

Paul M. Krawzak, David Lerman and Doug Sword contributed to this report.