Stimulus Deal: $300 jobless benefits, $600 checks, not money for states; likely January before checks arrive

WASHINGTON (AP/CNN) — Top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal Sunday on an almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them.

The agreement, announced by congressional leaders, would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

It came after months of battling and posturing, but the negotiating dynamic changed in Republicans’ favor after the election and as the end of the congressional session neared. President-elect Joe Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted this fall.

House leaders informed lawmakers that they would vote on the legislation on Monday, and the Senate was likely to vote on Monday, too. Lawmakers were eager to leave Washington and close out a tumultuous year.

“There will be another major rescue package for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in announcing the agreement for a relief bill that would total almost $900 billion. “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”

A fight over Federal Reserve emergency powers was resolved Saturday night by the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, and conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. That breakthrough led to a final round of negotiations Sunday.

Still, delays in finalizing the agreement prompted the House to pass a one-day stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at midnight Sunday. The Senate was likely to pass the measure Sunday night as well.

The final agreement would be the largest spending measure yet. It combined COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion government-wide funding plan and lots of other unrelated measures on taxes, health, infrastructure and education. The government-wide funding would keep the government open through September.

Passage neared as coronavirus cases and deaths spiked and evidence piled up that the economy was struggling. The legislation had been held up by months of dysfunction, posturing and bad faith. But talks turned serious in recent days as lawmakers on both sides finally faced the deadline of acting before leaving Washington for Christmas.

“This bill is a good bill. Tonight is a good night. But it is not the end of the story, it is not the end of the job,” Schumer told reporters. “Anyone who thinks this bill is enough does not know what’s going on in America.”

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would also be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual’s payment began to phase out after $75,000.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff amid widespread lockdowns this spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands. Republican politicians, starting with President Donald Trump, focused more on reopening the economy and less on taxpayer-financed steps like supplemental jobless benefits.

Lawmakers had hoped to pass the bill this weekend and avoid the need for a stopgap spending bill, but progress slowed Saturday as Toomey pressed for the inclusion of a provision to close down the Fed’s lending facilities. Democrats and the White House said it was too broadly worded and would have tied the hands of the incoming Biden administration, but Republicans rallied to Toomey’s position.

Late-breaking decisions would limit $300 per week bonus jobless benefits — one half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the CARES Act in March — to 10 weeks instead of 16 weeks as before. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people would be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual’s payment begins to phase out after $75,000.

After the announcement, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced additional details, including $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

Still, Democrats wanted more. Pelosi, in a letter to colleagues, called the package an initial step. “In 31 days, when Joe Biden enters the White House, more help will be on the way,” Pelosi said.

The governmentwide appropriations bill would fund agencies through next September. That measure was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, including one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean energy provisions, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, and $27 billion for highways, cash-starved transit systems, Amtrak and airports.

Democrats failed in a monthslong battle to deliver direct fiscal relief to states and local governments, but they successfully pressed for $22 billion would help states and local governments with COVID-19-related health expenses.

The end-of-session rush also promised relief for victims of shockingly steep surprise medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers drop out of insurance company networks.

What’s in the relief deal

The legislative text of the deal has not yet been released, but here are key provisions that will be included as part of the agreement, according to a release Sunday evening from House and Senate Democratic leaders:
  • Direct payment checks of up to $600 per adult and child
  • Aid for struggling small businesses, including more than $284 billion for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and $15 billion “in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions”
  • $300 per week for enhanced unemployment insurance benefits
  • $25 billion for rental assistance and an eviction moratorium extension
  • $82 billion for education providers like schools and colleges, including aid to help reopen classrooms safely
  • $10 billion to help with child care assistance
  • $13 billion in increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and child nutrition benefits
  • $7 billion to bolster broadband access to help Americans connect remotely during the pandemic
  • Funding totaling in the billions of dollars to support coronavirus vaccine distribution, testing and contract tracing efforts and health care workers
  • A tax credit “to support employers offering paid sick leave”

What’s next

A number of procedural steps still need to take place to clear the way for a vote in both chambers, with the potential to further slow the process.
Once the text is unveiled, the House Rules Committee will have to consider the package — a meeting that could take several hours. Then, they will have to schedule a House floor debate and set up votes in the chamber.
The Senate is more complicated because it requires consent of all 100 members to schedule a vote, and it’s uncertain if that will happen if any member is unhappy with the bill or the process. If they can’t get an agreement for a quick vote, McConnell will be forced to take procedural steps to up a vote, a process that could take several days.

A second round of stimulus payments is included in a coronavirus relief package struck by congressional leaders late Sunday.

Lawmakers are expected to vote Monday on the deal, which would provide for $600 checks, but experts say it will take at least two weeks for the Treasury to get cash into individuals’ bank accounts after legislation is signed.
“The timing could be more challenging this time, but the IRS could likely begin to get the money out in January,” said Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
In March, Congress provided individuals with $1,200 direct payments and couples with $2,400 plus $500 per child under the $2 trillion CARES Act. Those payments started phasing out for singles who earn more than $75,000 a year and those earning more than $99,000 did not receive anything. The income thresholds were doubled for couples.
As with the first round, the new payments will only be sent to people below a certain income level, though it wasn’t immediately clear Sunday where that would be set.
It took two weeks after that bill was passed for the IRS to start distributing the money — but some eligible recipients still haven’t received it, months later.

Who gets the money fastest

The payments do not go all out at once. Those whose bank information is on file with the IRS will likely get the money first because it will be directly deposited into their account. Others will receive paper checks or prepaid debit cards in the mail.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza cuts through the political spin and tells you what you need to know.
About 90 million people — more than half of those eligible — received their payments within the first three weeks of April after the March deal was signed. Most people had their money within two months.
Still, about 12 million eligible Americans were at risk of not getting the money at all because the IRS had no way to reach them. While most people received the money automatically, very low-income people who don’t normally file tax returns had to register online before November 21 to provide their address or bank account number.

IRS under pressure

If Congress keeps the eligibility requirements the same as they were for the first round of checks, the process may be nearly as easy as hitting a button. But it could complicate things if the parameters are changed — especially if Congress adds restrictions aside from income.
Additional checks may delay the start of the 2020 tax filing season. A second stimulus check means the agency will have to make changes to the tax return forms, some of which have already been sent to the printers.
December is not an ideal time to add to the IRS’s workload. It’s typically the month when work is done to prepare for the upcoming filing season and more staff may be on leave than usual due to the holidays.
“I believe the IRS will deliver the stimulus checks in a timely manner. It just might be at the expense of the filing season start date,” said Chad Hooper, the executive director of the Professional Managers Association, which advocates for more than 30,000 non-union IRS workers.
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