WASHINGTON - Negotiators were down to a handful of issues as they sought to finalize an almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package Saturday, still optimistic the overdue talks would soon produce an agreement. The Senate convened a Saturday session, while House members stood by for a vote that will come no earlier than Sunday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said a provision by Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would curb emergency Federal Reserve powers was the biggest hurdle to sealing a deal.
"That has to be resolved. And then everything will fall into place," she said. "It's a very significant difference."
Democrats said Toomey's stand on the Fed would deprive President-elect Joe Biden of crucial tools to manage the economy.
A new deadline of midnight Sunday for a government shutdown served as a backstop for the tortuous negotiations, which were being conducted in secret largely among the top four leaders in Congress.
"We need to conclude our talks, draft legislation and land this plane," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
A spokesman for Pelosi said she told Democratic colleagues on a Saturday conference call that "we're right within reach."
The massive package would wrap much of Capitol Hill's unfinished 2020 business into a take-it-or-leave-it measure that promised to be a foot thick or more. House lawmakers will probably have only a few hours to study it before voting as early as Sunday afternoon. A Senate vote would follow, probably on Monday. One more short-term funding bill probably would be needed to avoid the looming deadline.
An agreement in principle Saturday would be a precursor to more hours of translating compromises into detailed legislation. Lawmakers are eager to exit Washington and close out a tumultuous year.
House lawmakers were told they wouldn't have to report to work Saturday but that a Sunday session was likely. The Senate scheduled votes on nominations Saturday.
The $900 billion package comes as the pandemic is delivering its most fearsome surge yet, killing more than 3,000 people a day and straining the health care system. While vaccines are on the way, most people won't get them for months. Jobless claims are rising.
The emerging agreement would deliver more than $300 billion in aid to businesses and provide the jobless a $300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit and renewal of state benefits that would otherwise expire right after Christmas. It includes $600 direct payments to individuals, vaccine distribution funds and money for renters, schools, the Postal Service and people needing food aid.
Effort to bar Fed lending
Toomey's provision, a feature of GOP bills that failed to advance this fall, would close down more than $400 billion in potential Fed lending powers established under legislation in March. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is shutting down the programs at the end of December, but Toomey's language goes further, by barring the Fed from restarting the lending next year.
"As we navigate through an unprecedented economic crisis, it is in the interests of the American people to maintain the Fed's ability to respond quickly and forcefully," said Brian Deese, an economic adviser to Biden. "Undermining that authority could mean less lending to Main Street businesses, higher unemployment and greater economic pain across the nation."
The Fed programs provided loans to small and midsized businesses and bought state and local government bonds, making it easier for those governments to borrow, at a time when their finances are under pressure from the pandemic.
The Fed would need the support of the Treasury Department to restart the programs, which Biden's Treasury secretary nominee, Janet Yellen, a former Fed chair, probably would provide. The Treasury could also provide funds to backstop those programs without congressional approval and could ease the lending requirements. That could encourage more lending under the programs, which have seen only limited use so far.
The developing package is the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act passed virtually unanimously in March, delivering $1.8 trillion in aid, more generous $600-per-week bonus jobless benefits and $1,200 direct payments to individuals.
The new relief aid would be added to a $1.4 trillion governmentwide appropriations bill that would fund agencies through next September. That measure is likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature.