COVID-19 relief: What's on the table as Congress seeks deal

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Copyright 2020 Jacquelyn Martin. All rights reserved.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of Calif., speaks during her weekly briefing, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – After numerous fits and starts and months of inaction, optimism is finally building in Washington for a COVID-19 aid bill that would offer relief for businesses, the unemployed, schools, and health care providers, among others struggling as caseloads are spiking.

Under pressure from moderates in both parties, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have initiated late-game negotiations in hopes of combining a relief package of, in all likelihood, less than $1 trillion with a separate $1.4 trillion governmentwide omnibus spending bill. The duo were the architects of the $1.8 trillion CARES Act, the landmark relief bill passed in March.

Success is not certain and considerable differences remain over items such as aid to states and local governments, liability protections for businesses and universities reopening during the pandemic, and whether to issue a second round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans.

But renewing soon-to-expire jobless benefits, providing a second round of “paycheck protection” subsidies, and funding to distribute vaccines are sure bets to be included in any deal.

Here are the top issues for the end-stage COVID-19 relief talks.

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JOBLESS BENEFITS

The CARES Act created a $600 per-week bonus COVID-19 unemployment benefit that sustained household incomes and consumer demand during the springtime shutdowns. It expired at the end of July and Republicans are against its renewal. The CARES Act also allowed for additional weeks of emergency pandemic unemployment payments at regular benefit levels — which are themselves about to expire, on Dec. 31. Any deal is sure to extend the emergency benefits, and a bipartisan compromise framework that’s helping guide the talks calls for restoring half of the bonus benefit, or $300 per week more.