Congress hits snag negotiating $900B COVID-19 relief bill

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Prospects for a $900 billion coronavirus relief deal in Congress hit a snag Saturday over a Republican provision that would sharply limit the ability of the Federal Reserve to restart emergency lending programs.

Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who is pushing the change, told reporters that his goal was “preventing the Fed from being politicized.”

Both sides appear to have dug in on the issue. In a call with his caucus Saturday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told fellow Republicans to stand behind Toomey, the Washington Post reported.

Democrats meanwhile have increasingly indicated the central bank is a red line, and say attempts to constrain its lending power are nothing more than partisan politics designed to undermine a future Biden administration.

“We count on the Fed’s emergency powers to get us through economic crises. To limit these powers risks a ton of jobs and lives if another crisis hits in 2020,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted Saturday. “Their demand is unrelated to emergency COVID relief – it’s just about trying to sabatoge [sic] a Biden presidency.”

Before talks bogged down, the outlines of an agreement provided $300 billion in small business relief, $600 direct payments to Americans and funds for vaccine distribution,

In addition, lawmakers were looking to clear a $1.4 trillion spending package that will keep federal agencies funded through next September — and provide $1.4 billion for President Trump’s wall along the US-Mexican border.

Democrats — who have already abandoned relief aid to state and local governments — had hoped to potentially backdoor some of their goals with fed lending.

There was broad consensus by late afternoon Saturday that the Toomey roadblock was the last and most significant obstacle preventing a deal.

“I think they have a better understanding of their individual positions. But I can’t predict what the results gonna be. I don’t know whether they’re gonna be able to bridge the divide or not,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney said after leaving a meeting with Toomey and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), CNN reported.

Still there was broad optimism overall that a deal would eventually be worked out as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage unchecked across the country.

More than 320,000 Americans have died from the virus.

“Everyone is cautiously optimistic. Both sides want to get something passed and time is running out,” a Senate insider with knowledge of the talks told The Post.

Days of failed negotiation between lawmakers led to a rare weekend session to hammer out the final terms. In the Senate, Schumer and McConnell expressed their desire to see a bill Saturday.

“We need cooperation and focus from all sides. There’s a kind of gravitational pull here in Congress where unless we are careful any major negotiation can easily slide into an unending catalogue of disagreements,” McConnell said.

Congress gave themselves a little extra breathing room Friday by passing a two-day stopgap spending measure to keep the government open and allow negotiators more time to hammer out the final agreement.

If a deal is soon reached, the House could take up the bill a early as Sunday, with just a few hours to review it before voting. Any changes or alterations will then head back to the Senate for final vote there — likely Monday. A stopgap spending measure to avoid a Sunday night deadline will also likely enter the mix.

If adopted, the relief bill will be the first major federal coronavirus relief since the CARES Act was passed by Congress in March. The bill delivered an unprecedented $1.8 trillion in aide, and $1,200 direct payments to individual Americans.

With Post wires

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