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Final stretch on COVID-19 economic relief, but no deal yet

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional negotiators on the long-delayed $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package worked through a handful of remaining holdups Thursday as they labored to seal a final agreement for more help to businesses and the unemployed and new stimulus payments to most Americans.

The central elements of the hard-fought compromise appeared in place: More than $300 billion in aid to businesses; a $300-per-week bonus federal jobless benefit and renewal of soon-to-expire state benefits; $600 direct payments to individuals; vaccine distribution funds and money for renters, schools, the Postal Service and people needing food aid.

READ MORE: Talks escalate on new COVID-19 relief, top lawmakers to meet

But hang-ups involving Federal Reserve powers, state and local government matching requirements for disaster grants, and myriad smaller disagreements over non-pandemic add-ons have slowed progress, aides involved in the negotiations said.

A top negotiator warned that the current set of problems could knock the talks off track.

“Do we want to lapse into politics as usual and let negotiations lose steam? Do we want to haggle and spar like this was an ordinary political exercise?” asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Or on the other hand, after months of inaction, do we want to move swiftly and with unusual bipartisanship to close out our issues, seal the deal, and write text that can quickly pass into law?”

McConnell’s warning came as negotiators sought to fine-tune difficult compromises to complete the second major relief package of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act in March, which delivered $1.8 trillion in aid and more generous jobless benefits and direct payments to individuals. Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for further major steps to provide relief and battle the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to more fully reopen the economy and to avoid padding the government’s $27 trillion debt.

The urgency was underscored Thursday by the weekly unemployment numbers, which revealed that 885,000 people applied for jobless benefits last week, the highest weekly total since September, as spiking coronavirus cases threaten the economy’s recovery.

President-elect Joe Biden is eager for an aid package to prop up the economy and deliver direct aid to the jobless and hungry, even though the package falls short of what Democrats want. He called the emerging version “an important down payment” and promised more help next year.

“We made some progress this morning,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as she entered the Capitol on Thursday.

The details were still being worked out, but more than $300 billion in subsidies for business, including a second round of “paycheck protection” payments to especially hard-hit businesses, are locked in, as is $25 billion to help struggling renters with their payments, money for food aid and farm subsidies, and a $10 billion bailout for the Postal Service.

Democrats acknowledged that the removal of a $160 billion-or-so aid package for state and local governments whose budgets have been thrown out of balance by the pandemic was a bitter loss.

“It’s heartbreaking for us,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose state has big fiscal problems.

Some Democrats also mourned the exclusion of a $500 million aid package to help states run their elections. The money was seen as urgent this summer to help jurisdictions more safely administer
their elections in the middle of the pandemic. But with the election over, momentum for the money has gone away.

The emerging package was serving as a magnet for adding on other items, and the two sides continued to swap offers. It was apparent that another temporary spending bill would be needed to prevent a government shutdown at midnight on Friday. That was likely to easily pass.

House leaders are hoping to vote by Friday on the massive package, which would combine the COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion government-wide funding bill and a host of other remaining congressional business, including extending expiring tax breaks and passing other unfinished legislation.

The frightening, record surge in COVID caseloads and deaths, combined with troubling economic indicators, however, is mandating an agreement, though the emerging package contains less economic stimulus than the March aid bill.

WATCH: Sens. Manchin and Collins hold press conference on COVID-19 relief bill

“The case for fiscal policy right now is very, very strong,” Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday. “I think that is widely understood now. It’s a very positive thing that we may finally be getting that.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully pushed to get Democrats to drop their much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package while giving up a key priority of his own — a liability shield for businesses and other institutions like universities fearing COVID-19 lawsuits. Democrats cited other gains for states and localities in the emerging deal such as help for transit systems, schools and vaccine distribution.

The addition of the $600 direct payments came after recent endorsements from both President Donald Trump and progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who remains dissatisfied about the overall package.

“Everything that is in that package is vitally needed,” Sanders said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The problem is that it is a much smaller package than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation.”

Pressure for a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits run out Dec. 26 for more than 10 million people. Many businesses are barely hanging on after nine months of the pandemic. And money is needed to distribute new vaccines that are finally offering hope for returning the country to a semblance of normalcy.

The looming agreement follows efforts by a bipartisan group of rank-and-file lawmakers to find middle ground between a $2.4 trillion House bill and a $500 billion GOP measure fashioned by McConnell.

Their $908 billion proposal has served as a template for the talks, although the bipartisan group, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, favored aid to states and localities instead of another round of stimulus payments. The CARES Act provided for $1,200 payments per individual and $500 per child.

“I think that the work that our bipartisan group did really helped to stimulate this,” Collins said.