U.S. Congress in sprint to fund government, approve COVID-19 emergency aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Negotiators in the U.S. Congress were nearing agreement on Monday on a massive government spending deal that would avoid a government shutdown and could serve as the vehicle to pass a fresh round of aid to a coronavirus-hit nation.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Building is reflected on a marble seating area following a rainstorm at the East Front on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Lawmakers, facing a midnight Friday deadline, were scurrying to put the finishing touches on a $1.4 trillion spending bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

At stake are funds for federally run programs ranging from healthcare, homeland security and military readiness to foreign aid, national parks and nutrition programs. They have been operating on temporary funding since October.

A source familiar with the talks said congressional negotiators were close to agreement on the government spending bill and have only a “few small items” still open. The source declined to provide further detail.

Without a deal, the government would have to begin shutting non-emergency programs and furloughing many workers.

Members of the Republican-run Senate and Democratic-led House of Representatives, who fear negotiations could extend through the Christmas holiday, have a second major task: deciding the contours of a coronavirus aid bill that could approach $1 trillion amid a worsening pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 Americans.

Some moderate lawmakers on Sunday dismissed suggestions that a $908 billion bipartisan coronavirus aid proposal was languishing.

“The plan is alive and well and there’s no way, no way that we are going to leave Washington without taking care of the emergency needs of our people,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin told Fox News, saying the proposal would be introduced formally on Monday.

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TWO-PART PROPOSAL?

The authors now planned to divide the measure into two separate proposals, which could be voted on separately, a different source familiar with the plan said. One would be a $748 billion proposal including aid to small businesses, the unemployed and COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

The other would include major sticking points such as coronavirus-related liability protections for business, which are backed by Republicans, and $160 billion for state and local governments, a Democratic priority.

Lawmakers are hoping to attach the aid to the government funding measure.

Local public health agencies worry that without a deal on either of the two bills, they will not have enough money to carry out a massive COVID-19 vaccination program.

The first U.S. doses of Pfizer Inc’s newly approved vaccine were administered on Monday.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act fast on a coronavirus aid bill, before he takes office on Jan. 20. Even if it does, his new administration likely will seek another round of emergency aid next year.

WHO WINS AND WHO LOSES?

With the twin goals of stimulating the struggling U.S. economy and financing purchases of medical supplies, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are faced with deciding who should receive new help from Washington – beyond over $3 trillion appropriated last spring – and who should not.

Democrats have been pushing hard for aid to state and local governments to insure against laying off more workers, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, dismissed that on Friday as a “preposterous” federal handout for Democratic-leaning states that he says do not need it.

The House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, suggested some wiggle room, telling CNN on Sunday that Democrats “are not going to get everything we want. We think state and local (aid) is important. And if we can get that, we want to get it. But we want to get aid out to the people who are really, really struggling and are at grave risk.”

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that Pelosi, a Democrat, believes the need for state and local funding is important, “especially given the states’ responsibility for distributing and administering the vaccine.”

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