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What's on Tap as Congress Seeks Deal   12/05 09:49

   After numerous fits and starts and months of inaction, optimism is finally 
building in Washington for a COVID-19 aid bill that would offer relief for 
businesses, the unemployed, schools, and health care providers, among others 
struggling as caseloads are spiking.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- After numerous fits and starts and months of inaction, 
optimism is finally building in Washington for a COVID-19 aid bill that would 
offer relief for businesses, the unemployed, schools, and health care 
providers, among others struggling as caseloads are spiking.

   Under pressure from moderates in both parties, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 
and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have initiated late-game 
negotiations in hopes of combining a relief package of, in all likelihood, less 
than $1 trillion with a separate $1.4 trillion governmentwide omnibus spending 
bill. The duo were the architects of the $1.8 trillion CARES Act, the landmark 
relief bill passed in March.

   Success is not certain and considerable differences remain over items such 
as aid to states and local governments, liability protections for businesses 
and universities reopening during the pandemic, and whether to issue a second 
round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans.

   But renewing soon-to-expire jobless benefits, providing a second round of 
"paycheck protection" subsidies, and funding to distribute vaccines are sure 
bets to be included in any deal.

   Here are the top issues for the end-stage COVID-19 relief talks.

   ___

   JOBLESS BENEFITS

   The CARES Act created a $600 per-week bonus COVID-19 unemployment benefit 
that sustained household incomes and consumer demand during the springtime 
shutdowns. It expired at the end of July and Republicans are against its 
renewal. The CARES Act also allowed for additional weeks of emergency pandemic 
unemployment payments at regular benefit levels --- which are themselves about 
to expire, on Dec. 31. Any deal is sure to extend the emergency benefits, and a 
bipartisan compromise framework that's helping guide the talks calls for 
restoring half of the bonus benefit, or $300 per week more.

   ___

   BUSINESS SUBSIDIES

   Another sure thing is a reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection Program, 
also established by the CARES Act, to give a second round of subsidies to 
businesses struggling through the pandemic and make other changes to the 
program, which enjoys bipartisan support but is particularly revered by 
Republicans. Leftover PPP funds from two springtime infusions into the program 
would cover almost half of the $300 billion or so cost.

   ___

   DIRECT PAYMENTS

   President Trump has long supported another $1,200 round of direct payments 
to most Americans, subject to income limits that make upper-bracket taxpayers 
ineligible. House Democrats support the idea, but it is unpopular with many 
Senate Republicans and was left out of a scaled-back Senate GOP plan. A 
bipartisan bill by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others, leaves out the 
direct payments as well, and their up to $300 billion cost could render them 
too expensive for inclusion in the year-end package, though lawmakers ranging 
from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are pushing 
to retain them.

   ___

   STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

   This is one of the trickiest issues in the talks --- another round of aid to 
states and local governments to follow a $150 billion installment this spring. 
It's a top priority of Pelosi and other Democrats but is opposed by many 
Republicans, who warn it would bail out states run by Democrats like California 
and New York. Trump doesn't like the idea as well, but Pelosi's demands for the 
money have been slashed from earlier amounts approaching $1 trillion. Revenue 
losses due to COVID-19 haven't been as large as feared. But smaller localities 
left out of the first tranche of payments are eager for funding. A plan 
endorsed by moderates would provide $160 billion.

   ___

   LIABILITY SHIELD

   Businesses reopening during the pandemic have for months been seeking a 
shield against lawsuits claiming negligence for COVID-19 outbreaks. McConnell 
is the most potent backer of the idea and he's drafted sweeping protections 
against lawsuits for businesses, universities, and other organizations. The 
powerful trial lawyers lobby --- which still holds great influence with 
Democrats --- is opposed, and McConnell's fears of a wave of COVID-related 
lawsuits haven't materialized. Veteran Senate Judiciary Committee members Dick 
Durbin, D-Ill., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have been deputized to negotiate the 
issue, a sign the talks are at a serious stage.

   ___

   ODDS AND ENDS

   Numerous smaller items are ripe for inclusion, including $10 billion for the 
Postal Service, a $20 billion-plus deal adding food aid sought by Democrats and 
farm subsidies favored by Republicans, more than $100 billion in funding for 
schools seeking to reopen, along with funding for child care, Amtrak, transit 
systems, and health care providers.

 
 
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