Congressional negotiators were down to a handful of issues on Saturday, as they sought to finalize an almost $1tn Covid-19 economic relief package.
The Senate convened a Saturday session, while House members stood by for a vote as soon as Sunday.
The Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said a provision by the Pennsylvania Republican senator Pat Toomey that would curb Federal Reserve emergency powers, and thereby deprive President-elect Joe Biden of crucial tools to manage the economy, was the biggest hurdle to a sealing a deal.
“That has to be resolved,” she said. “And then everything will fall into place. It’s a very significant difference.”
A new deadline of midnight on Sunday for a government shutdown if new funding is not passed served as a backstop for the Covid relief negotiations, which were conducted in secret, largely among the top four leaders in Congress.
“We need to conclude our talks, draft legislation, and land this plane,” said the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
A spokesman for Pelosi said she told Democrats on a conference call: “We’re right within reach.”
The broad measure would wrap much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished 2020 business into a take-it-or-leave-it proposal that promises to be a foot thick or more. House lawmakers will probably have only a few hours to study it before voting on Sunday. A Senate vote would follow, probably on Monday. One more short-term funding bill probably would also be needed to avoid that looming deadline.
Lawmakers are eager to leave Washington but an agreement in principle on Saturday would only be a precursor to more hours of translating compromises into legislation.
The $900bn package comes as the pandemic is delivering its most fearsome surge yet, killing more than 3,000 a day and straining healthcare systems. While vaccines are on the way, most won’t get them for months. Jobless claims are on the rise.
The emerging agreement would deliver more than $300bn to businesses while providing individuals a $300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit and renewal of state benefits that would otherwise expire 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.
Toomey’s provision would close down more than $400bn in potential Fed lending powers established under a legislation in March. The US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is shutting down the programs at the end of December but Toomey wants to go further, barring the Fed from restarting such 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 developing aid package is the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark Cares Act passed virtually unanimously in March, delivering $1.8tn in aid, $600-per-week bonus jobless benefits and $1,200 direct payments to individuals.
The new aid would be added to a $1.4tn governmentwide appropriations bill that would fund agencies to next September. That measure is likely to provide a last $1.4bn installment for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, as a condition of winning his signature.
For Republicans, the most important Covid-19 aid provision was a long-sought second round of “paycheck protection” payments to hard-hit businesses and renewal of soon-to-expire state jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Democrats have been denied direct fiscal relief for states and local governments and got a supplemental Covid-19 unemployment benefit only half the size of what the Cares Act delivered. Democrats won $25bn to help struggling renters and $45bn for airlines and transit systems, but some critics on the left said negotiators were being outmaneuvered.
Biden is pressing for an agreement and promising another bill next year, but if Democrats lose Georgia Senate runoff elections next month, they may have little leverage. GOP leaders say privately an aid bill may help their candidates in January.
Most economists, including the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, strongly support additional economic stimulus as necessary to keep businesses and households afloat through a tough winter.