Deal reached on $900B coronavirus relief package; votes likely Monday

Legislative text still being finalized, as Trump signs one-day stopgap funding bill

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks during a news conference on the House steps in Washington on Dec. 10, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks during a news conference on the House steps in Washington on Dec. 10, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 20, 2020 at 11:31am, Updated at 11:59pm

Congressional leaders on Sunday night reached agreement on a massive pandemic rescue measure that will be attached to a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

"At long last we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. "Now we need to promptly finalize text, avoid any last-minute obstacles and cooperate to move this legislation through both chambers."

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer spoke just after McConnell and confirmed the agreement, which he said ends "weeks of intense bipartisan negotiations" between the leadership of both parties and the White House.

The New York Democrat earlier described the delay in terms of making sure the legislative language itself reflects the most recent bipartisan deals that have been cut. "They’ve written the vast majority of it which has been agreed to, but they have to rewrite the parts or write the parts that have just been recently agreed to," Schumer told reporters.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., put lawmakers in that chamber on notice Sunday morning that a vote on the as-yet-unreleased text would be held later in the day. But it still wasn't clear when the final bill would be ready and posted for lawmakers and the public to see it.

Hopes for a quick vote were dashed later on Sunday when Hoyer put out a new scheduling notice saying the chamber would vote on a one-day continuing resolution to provide more time to finalize the text and let lawmakers read it before voting Monday.

The House passed the bill on a 329-65 vote Sunday night, and the Senate cleared it by voice vote about two hours later. President Donald Trump signed the measure into law about 20 minutes before the midnight deadline.

As the day wore on, senators increasingly began to doubt both chambers would be able to act on Sunday. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said even if final votes slipped only to Monday it wasn't worth risking a federal funding lapse.

"It seems to me we're going to have to have another very short-term [continuing resolution]," said Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations subcommittee.

House Democrats were getting a briefing on the COVID-19 aid bill details on a 5 p.m. conference call, followed by another briefing at 7 p.m. on the underlying appropriations package, according to a source familiar with the plans.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” that he supports the tentative compromise on coronavirus relief and the underlying spending bill. “I do have optimism that it will pass,” he said. “I am very hopeful that we get this done today.”

As of late afternoon Sunday, unresolved issues appeared to include whether businesses that received loan forgiveness under the Paycheck Protection Program should be able to deduct expenses paid for with PPP funds.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been fighting that bipartisan proposal, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say was unintentionally left out of the March law creating the PPP.

Mnuchin says it's bad tax policy to let businesses claim tax deductions on the same expenses they paid for with government grants, especially when those grants are excluded from taxable income. But critics of the Treasury stance argue not fixing the problem would result in big tax bills for the same small businesses Congress has been trying to help through the pandemic.

Mnuchin held a conference call with House Republicans on Sunday to discuss the emerging package. Several lawmakers urged Mnuchin to reconsider his opposition to PPP loan deductibility, according to Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.

"Our small businesses are hurting, and it isn’t their fault," Burchett tweeted on Sunday. "This needs to happen."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been fighting the administration both on PPP deductibility and on a White House proposal to reinstate tariffs on goods made with parts sourced from third-party countries under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade accord.

Schumer, however, suggested to reporters later in the day that both the PPP tax issue and another dispute, over scholarship funds for kids to attend private schools if their public schools are closed or otherwise not meeting their needs, had been resolved.

"I think you're a little behind the times," Schumer told reporters asking if those issues were still delaying a deal.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., also said both issues had been resolved. Like Schumer, he didn't elaborate.

'Not going to be the Grinch'

The final bill is expected to include $300 a week in extra federal unemployment insurance benefits, about $325 billion in aid to small businesses, and $600 checks to individuals, including children and adult dependents.

The package is also expected to include funding for vaccine distribution and food assistance for low-income households, among other things.

"The great news is Congress is not going to be the Grinch. We're going to get this package done," Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said on ABC’s “This Week.”

President Donald Trump has been largely absent from the negotiations, with his administration represented by Mnuchin. But in an indication he was likely to sign the package, Trump tweeted in the early morning hours Sunday that Congress should “get it done” and give Americans more money in the form of direct payments.

The last big hurdle in pandemic aid negotiations, which have been deadlocked since the summer, was worked out late Saturday when Schumer and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey reached agreement on language addressing emergency lending programs Congress created in the March aid bill.

[Breakthrough seen on coronavirus relief bill with Fed lending compromise]

The Pennsylvania Republican agreed to drop his demand that the Federal Reserve not be able to restart any similar lending facilities that were set up earlier this year with appropriations from the March aid package.

Targeted programs included those that purchase corporate bonds, municipal bonds issued by states and localities and a facility that lent to businesses too large to qualify for PPP assistance. Toomey ultimately agreed to allow some form of future lending facilities that could potentially help businesses and state and local governments obtain lower borrowing costs, as long as they weren't identical.

Toomey told reporters Sunday that he agreed to narrow his provision “because the Democrats made a fair point, that [his earlier language] was too broad and that might have captured facilities that we didn’t intend to capture.”

The March law gave the Fed a power it doesn’t normally have to make loans directly to borrowers and to lose money on that portfolio, which is why Treasury dollars were needed to back these programs. The Fed should not have to directly lend in the market without lawmakers’ OK, which is why Toomey wanted to sunset the funds.

“The majority of the Fed facilities are untouched by our language so they remain in place," he said.

While the final deal won't provide any direct state and local government assistance, states and localities would get an extra year to spend unused allocations from the $150 billion they received in March, according to a source familiar with the emerging deal.

'Dom Perignon for everybody'

The pandemic aid package likely won’t represent the last bill Congress approves to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans want to pass legislation that would provide a liability shield for businesses, educational institutions and other organizations but have been unable to reach a compromise with Democrats for months.

Democrats similarly have been pushing for additional funding for state and local governments, but without amassing the support from GOP leadership needed to include the provisions in this package.

Democrats have said that this bill, one of the largest rescue measures in the nation’s history, will be a “down payment” on another package that will be negotiated after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

The underlying omnibus package is expected to carry a dozen appropriations measures for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It's also expected to be the vehicle for numerous proposals that have been languishing without a "must-pass" vehicle, including a compromise on surprise out-of-network medical billing restrictions and renewal of dozens of expiring tax breaks.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a gastroenterologist who's been working on the surprise billing legislation, said it was "99 percent" similar to a previously-announced bipartisan agreement between several House and Senate committees. "It's a big deal," he said. "I told my staff, 'Dom Perignon for everybody.'"

Still, the wide-ranging scope of the legislation was causing some concern on both sides of the Capitol given only a close circle of negotiators know what's in it.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., probably was speaking for many lawmakers when she told reporters on Sunday that she can't commit to voting for something she hadn't read yet.

"Everyone still wants to see the final text," Warren said.

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Lindsey McPherson, Doug Sword, Niels Lesniewski and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.