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Impasse ends in Congress with ‘arsenal’ of coronavirus relief

The stalemate is over as the nation's lawmakers prepared to vote Monday on measures to provide financial relief during the pandemic, to fund the federal government and to address other key concerns. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The stalemate is over, but the nation's lawmakers are voting tonight on measures to provide financial relief to those suffering in the pandemic, to fund the federal government, and to address other key concerns.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins has been following it all.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    After weeks of slow, tortured negotiations, at the Capitol, a mega-deal is on a very fast track.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    The bill today is a good bill. Today is a good day.

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    We have before us now finally, at long last, a piece of legislation that addresses the most critical needs that are out there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The final deal launches an arsenal of attempted coronavirus relief, for many Americans, direct checks of $600 each, for the unemployed, $300 more each week for 10 weeks, and to fight the virus, $50 billion for buying and distributing vaccine and for expanding testing and tracing across the country.

    At nearly a trillion dollars, the coronavirus portions alone make for one of the largest single-issue spending bills in U.S. history. But added to the must-pass COVID relief is a mountain of other heavyweight legislation affecting millions, the biggest financial aid expansion for college students in years, an entire package of significant climate and energy changes, and a long-sought-after bill to end what's called surprise medical billing.

    All of this, an epic 5,500 pages of lawmaking, is bound together, because it is likely the last chance this Congress has to pass anything, on any topic. That includes funding government, also in the bill. Most agencies and the military are due to run out of money at midnight tonight, hence the rush to get this behemoth through quickly, possibly before many, if any, members could read it.

    Republican Senator Rand Paul decried it as irresponsible.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.:

    The monstrous spending bill presented today is not just a deficits don't matter disaster. It is everything Republicans say they don't believe in. This bill is free money for everyone.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    From the leaders who do know what's in this bill, unified praise and debate over whether more relief will be needed.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    This is just some of the aid that will be heading Americans' way in a matter of hours, no sprawling left-wing wish list, no unconstrained bailouts for state and local government with no connection to COVID needs.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    The list could go on.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Whereas Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer railed about urgent needs in states, which face possible government layoffs.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    This is an emergency survival package. And when we come back in January, our number one job will be to fill in the gaps left by the bill and then get the economy moving with strong federal input.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In a statement yesterday, president-elect Joe Biden praised the bipartisan support, but noted that he sees this is as just the beginning.

    President Trump is expected to sign the bill once the deal gets to his desk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa is here now to walk us through what else made it into this massive bill.

    So, Lisa, let's start with COVID relief. Tell us where people are going to see help and how it is going to work.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's run right to a graphic on this, Judy.

    First of all, those $600 checks, those will go to people who — individuals earning $7,500 — $75,000 or less. If you have a child and you qualify, you will get another $600. Couples get $1,200 if they qualify.

    Now let's talk about food health. That's something we have talked a lot about on this show. There's a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits. That's what used to be called food stamps. That's temporary for four months. But when I talk to food banks, they say that is a massive help to them and families in need. They do think it will have to be extended later. But that's a help for now.

    Now, small businesses, the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. Another round of those sort of loans that will be forgiven will go out in this program. Those can go this time to businesses with fewer than 300 workers and which have lost 25 percent of revenue year on year. So, this is more targeted than last time.

    Again, those businesses will qualify for something like two-and-a-half months' worth of payroll and business expenses to help them get through. There is also special provisions in here for restaurants and theaters, museums, all of those in here getting some special carve-outs and help, because they are among the most suffering.

    And there is not anything for state and local government, something Democrats wanted. And the unemployment benefits run out in 10 and 11 weeks. That's what Democrats hope to extend again later.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All important details.

    So, Lisa, what is in here with regard to fighting the virus itself?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This was a major change through negotiations. The amount of money being spent directly to fight the virus jumped to $50 billion, Judy.

    That will be spent on buying enough vaccine, Congress hopes, to make it free, as well as on new testing and tracing for states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, as you mentioned, 5,500 pages. We can barely imagine the scale of this thing who's had the opportunity to read all of it.

    But give us a bigger sense of what else is in here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to talk about education reform, higher education specifically.

    Again, let me tick down what's in that part. There will be an increase in the Pell Grants. That will mean a half-a-million new students will qualify for the Pell Grants. Also, incarcerated Americans will now be able to qualify for Pell Grants.

    In addition, historically black colleges and universities will see $1.3 billion in loan forgiveness. That's for capital maintenance projects. That is a huge help to them at a time when they're struggling right now during the pandemic as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, climate and energy. We understand this bill contains a whole new energy policy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It blows your mind. I'm going through all of these major policies, but they're all important.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Again, I want to show you another graphic about this. This is important.

    Hydrofluorocarbons Will be phased out completely in this country within 15 years under this bill. Those are some of the biggest contributors to climate, say scientists. Also in this, there is money for carbon capture. That's a big, important thing for a lot of conservatives as well, a lot of research for that, and renewables.

    And there's reporting here that's interesting, looking for how much would it take to get to zero emissions by 2050, all of these, Judy, things that have been in the works, some of them, for six years by Senator Murkowski now getting in this bill, and we expect to be passed tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa, so much else that we could cover, but tell us what else stands out to you in here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, a 5,500-page bill is two-feet-tall. So there's a lot in this bill.

    But in there, surprise medical billing, so that, when you go to an emergency room, starting in the year 2022, you will not be getting a surprise bill for thousands and thousands of dollars, a major problem.

    There's also a bill for human rights in Tibet, including a consulate, a U.S. consulate in Tibet, which would be new, but all kinds of things in here, tax breaks for small breweries. There's an American women's history museum in here that would be established, a museum for American Latinos.

    It's so hard to know what to pin down. It is a massive bill. Basically, everything almost anyone in this Congress has wanted to do had a shot in this bill. And it looks like a lot of it is in there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something about Israel, Israeli peace, as well in the Middle East.

    So much to go through, Lisa. We will have to look at it in the days to come.

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you for staying on it all weekend.

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