coronavirus relief
December 29, 2020

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday in preparing to delay a vote to override President Trump's veto on a defense spending bill. Their opposition comes after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked Sanders' request to vote immediately on increasing stimulus checks to $2,000 from the $600 included in Congress' $900 billion relief bill.

Markey and Sanders both took Republican senators to task for supporting the "bloated" $740 billion defense bill while remaining hesitant about giving more money to "working families," some of whom are "struggling to survive" amid the pandemic. Markey said the situation amounted to a "moral failure for our country."

Sanders has previously said he intends to make sure lawmakers don't head home until the direct payment increase is brought up for a vote, even if it means they're stuck for New Year's Eve. Tim O'Donnell

December 29, 2020

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday blocked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) motion to increase, by unanimous consent, stimulus checks for qualifying Americans to $2,000 from the $600 included in Congress' $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill. McConnell also blocked a request to vote on the issue immediately from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who then followed through on his threat to delay a Wednesday vote to override President Trump's veto on a military defense defense spending bill, CNBC notes.

McConnell's actions weren't the end of the debate around increasing the checks, a measure already passed by the House that is supported by Trump, Senate Democrats, and a handful of Republicans. He said the upper chamber will in fact "begin a process" to bring the direct payments "into focus," along with unrelated complaints from Trump, including unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud and the repeal of Section 230, which provides liability protections for tech companies.

But, as Bloomberg notes, Congress adjourns Sunday, so the chances of actually voting on and passing the legislation between now and then are dwindling. Read more at Bloomberg and CNBC. Tim O'Donnell

December 29, 2020

The Senate faces an "uphill battle" in passing legislation that would increase direct COVID-19 relief payments for individuals from $600 to $2,000, but Republican lawmakers are facing more pressure to back the measure, Axios reports.

The House on Monday narrowly reached the two-thirds majority needed to pass the proposal — which is separate from a larger $900 billion relief bill approved by both chambers of Congress last week and subsequently signed into law by President Trump after a few days deliberation Sunday — but it's unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will even let it come to a vote in the upper chamber.

Its passage similarly requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, and while most Democrats are seemingly on board, many Republicans have appeared more hesitant because of concerns about mounting debt. But with Trump and their constituents calling for larger checks, there's a chance enough GOP senators will wind up backing the proposal, Republican sources told Axios. One source said if McConnell does bring the measure to the floor, "it might get 60" votes.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made it clear Monday night he will vote for the increase despite concerns about the debt, so a handful of like-minded colleagues would turn the tide. Read more at Axios. Tim O'Donnell

December 28, 2020

The House voted Monday to send $2,000 stimulus checks to qualifying Americans, rather than the $600 direct payments included in the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill passed last week. The new legislation, which required a two-thirds majority vote, passed narrowly, 275 to 134.

Republicans accounted for 130 of the no votes, with the remaining four split evenly between Democrats and independents. President Trump came out strongly against the $600 checks and appeared at some points ready to veto the entire relief bill unless the figure jumped to $2,000.

Many Democratic lawmakers were on board with the increase, but Republicans have been more hesitant, as reflected by the House vote. It's unclear whether the Senate will also pass the bill, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to indicate whether he will even take it up. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

December 21, 2020

The most significant aspect of Congress' omnibus spending bill is the $900 coronavirus relief package embedded within it, but there are a few surprising add-ons — as there usually are in such legislation — tucked into the nearly 6,000-paged text.

One item that snuck in there was the proposed creation of two new Smithsonian museums, one focused on women's history, and the other for the proposed "National Museum of the American Latino." Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) had previously blocked standalone bills that would have funded them.

The package also contains proposed legislation that would change how drugs are regulated in horseracing, a murder hornet eradication program, and a continued ban on federal funding for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an organization that hasn't existed for years. That language has apparently appeared quite frequently in bills over the last few years, and some Republican lawmakers reportedly think it may just keep getting copy-and-pasted by aides.

The sovereignty of Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong also received frequent mentions, which, in other words, means the bill includes language hinting at opposition to potential Chinese encroachment on those places. One item that's been garnering a lot of attention concerns the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Several observers pointed out that while that may seem unnecessary or even silly at first glance, especially because it seems out of place in a bill primarily focused on pandemic relief, it actually addresses a significant geopolitical issue. Tim O'Donnell

December 21, 2020

To secure a compromise on a COVID-19 relief bill, both parties in Congress had to trade some proverbial "horses," even if one side viewed the other's as "unconscionable."

That's the word Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) used to describe the GOP's White House-backed tax break for corporate meal expenses, per The Washington Post. Proponents of the tax break, including President Trump, argue it will help boost activity for restaurants, but critics have derisively labeled it the "three-martini lunch" deduction, claiming it will really benefit business executives rather than the dining industry. But despite staunch Democratic opposition, it worked its way into the draft relief bill that Congress is hoping to pass soon.

The reason? Democratic leaders caved on the controversial tax break because their Republican counterparts agreed to expand tax credits for low-income families and the working poor in exchange for its inclusion, a Democratic aide told The Washington Post on condition of anonymity. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

December 20, 2020

After months of negotiations, congressional leaders finally announced on Sunday they reached an agreement on a $900 billion economic relief package, which includes $600 direct payments to Americans, aid for small businesses, and an extension of the moratorium on evictions that was set to expire at the end of the year.

The news comes as the country deals with a surge in coronavirus cases and overwhelmed hospitals, but also increased vaccine distribution to health care workers and nursing home residents.

According to summaries from Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, The Washington Post reports, the coronavirus relief bill includes $600 stimulus checks per person, including children, for people earning less than $75,000 in the 2019 tax year. The size of the check drops for those who earned between $75,000 and $99,000, and goes away completely for those who made more than $99,000.

The legislation extends supplemental unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week and a program for contract and gig workers. It also includes more than $284 billion to cover first and second forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and expands PPP eligibility to news organizations and nonprofits. Independent movie theaters and cultural institutions will also receive $15 billion, and a tax break for corporate meal expenses pushed by the White House was approved, despite objections from Democrats.

The package extends the moratorium on evictions until Jan. 31 and provides $25 billion in emergency assistance to renters, but the Post notes it's unclear at this time how the funding will be distributed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the bill sets aside billions of dollars "specifically for combating the disparities facing communities of color, and to support our heroic health-care workers and providers."

The agreement also includes $13 billion in increased food stamps and nutrition benefits, $16 billion for airline employee and contractor payroll support, $20 billion to purchase vaccines, and $82 billion for schools to replace and repair heating and air conditioning units in order to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. It does not call for any new money for state and local governments or hazard pay for essential workers. Read more at The Washington Post. Catherine Garcia

December 20, 2020

The Senate appeared to reach a major breakthrough in COVID-19 relief negotiations late Saturday, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he believes both the House and Senate will vote on a package Sunday so long as "nothing gets in the way."

Schumer and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) were finishing up details of a compromise that seemingly resolves a sticking point about the Federal Reserve's ability to set up emergency lending programs without congressional approval, which Toomey wanted to restrict. Under the deal, The Wall Street Journal reports, the central bank wouldn't lose that power, but its options would be narrower — the Fed wouldn't be able to replicate programs identical to the ones it started in March unless Congress signed off.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the resolution means "we can begin closing out the rest of the package to deliver much-needed relief to families, workers, and businesses."

The finer details of the $900 billion proposal are still unclear, and talks could still hit a snag over certain issues, but should it go through, per CNN, the bill is expected to include $300 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits, $600 direct payments for individuals, $330 billion for small business loans, more than $80 billion for schools, and billions more for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Read more at CNN and The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

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