Congress passes ‘first step’ in pandemic relief with $900B package

Protesters take part in the AFL-CIO Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice near the U.S. Capitol on June 17, 2020 in Washington DC. The caravan circled the U.S. Capitol and national mall while honking their car horns to bring attention to their cause. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Widely labeled inadequate before it was even passed, Congress on Monday night cleared and sent to President Donald Trump the first major COVID-19 relief measure since the spring, a bill that would provide $900 billion in pandemic-related aid.

“This relief package includes less than I would have liked, but this is the best we could do with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus.

“This relief package was our emergency chute, and I’m glad we pulled it in time,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee.

Titus, Lee and other congressional Democrats from Nevada and the nation over, along with President-elect Joe Biden, said the relief bill is inadequate to the nation’s needs, and vowed to pass additional relief measures.

House leaders divided the bill into two parts and passed the emergency relief portion on a 359-53 vote. Another portion, which included Pentagon and other spending for the coming year, passed 327-85. The Senate combined the two bills and cleared the package in an overwhelming 92-6 vote shortly before midnight.

The White House has signaled Trump will sign the 5,593-page measure.

The six who voted no, all Republicans, were Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rick Scott of Florida.

The bipartisan relief deal that ended months of haggling would extend an array of long-sought assistance, including direct payments to Americans of $600; an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits; and billions more in loans to struggling small businesses.

It also would send nearly $9 billion to states to aid in vaccine distribution and $22 billion for more coronavirus testing and tracing. The measure contains billions more in child care assistance, help for schools, food aid and money for farmers; transportation funding; rental assistance and an extension of the eviction moratorium; and an end to surprise billing in emergency and scheduled care.

The measure also fixes a problem in the CARES Act passed in March that excluded direct payments to mixed-status families comprised of both citizens and undocumented people.

Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto issued a statement in conjunction with Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Tillis of North Carolina applauding the relief for mixed-status families.

“This will help 23,000 families in Nevada, many of whom are essential workers keeping our economy going and saving lives,” Cortez Masto said.

It doesn’t provide additional aid sought by state and local governments struggling with massive budget gaps — assistance that for months virtually every Nevada elected official and policymaker has been clamoring for — nor the liability protections sought for employers who may face COVID 19-related lawsuits if employees become infected with the virus. The measure also doesn’t extend the suspension of student loan interest and payments that will expire at the end of January.

That relief bill was sandwiched into a broader piece of legislation totaling $1.4 trillion that pays for federal government operations for the rest of the fiscal year, and was under debate in Congress just hours ahead of another deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

While the fiscal 2021 government operations will be funded through September, congressional Democrats described the emergency pandemic aid as only a small piece of what’s needed to address the ongoing crisis.

Millions of Americans remain on the unemployment rolls and the state-based vaccine distribution efforts have barely begun, while rising case counts have led to a new wave of restrictions on businesses and gatherings across the country.

“I would hope that as we see the need for what we have done in this nearly $900 billion legislation that we’ll vote on today that everyone understands it’s a first step,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a floor speech Monday. “It’s a first step, as President-elect Biden has said. It’s a first step, and we will need to do more.”

The relief package is the first major aid legislation to reach Trump since the CARES Act was approved in March, due to months of stalemate over the scope of another aid package. The Democratic-controlled House approved several additional relief measures, but those proposals did not advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Republicans have cast blame on Democrats in that chamber for blocking aid proposals, while Democrats argued that those alternative bills did not go far enough.

In touting the new relief bill Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the measure’s price tag, saying it requires less than $350 billion in new spending because more than half a trillion dollars in previously approved spending is being repurposed.

“No sprawling left-wing wish list. No unconstrained bailouts for state and local governments, with no connection to COVID needs. Just smart, targeted, bipartisan policies,” McConnell said, adding that the bill will do an “incredible amount of good.”

A deal on the pandemic relief bill appeared in sight late last week, but those talks stretched through the weekend due to disagreement over a provision sought by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to ensure that several temporary Federal Reserve lending programs will end this year.

Democrats objected to the provision, arguing that the language he sought was too broad and could overly constrain the Fed’s authority. Negotiators worked over several days to narrow the language sought by Toomey, clarifying which programs would wind down at the end of the year.

The bill’s full text was only released early Monday afternoon, just hours before House lawmakers launched debate on the measure.

President-elect Joe Biden released a statement Sunday evening in support of the emergency relief bill, saying it “will deliver critical resources to fight COVID-19.”

“But this action in the lame duck session is just the beginning. Our work is far from over,” Biden added.

Politicians weren’t the only ones setting their sights on additional legislation. The American Gaming Association issued a statement saying it looked forward to working with the Biden administration to provide tax relief, liability protections and other measures.

Laura Olson
Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Nevada Current. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.