The Senate passed a one week stop-gap bill on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, avoiding a partial government shutdown. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
COVID-19

Congress averts shutdown, buys time for more COVID-19 talks

Associated Press Dec 11, 2020
The Senate passed a one week stop-gap bill on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, avoiding a partial government shutdown. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Congress sent a temporary government-wide funding bill to President Donald Trump on Friday that would avert a federal shutdown at midnight and buy time for on-again, off-again talks on COVID-19 aid.

The bill sets a new deadline of midnight next Friday. The short-term measure passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote without much drama and sent senators home for the weekend without a clear picture of what awaits next week. The House passed the bill Wednesday. Trump was expected to sign it before midnight.

The talks are stalled but there is universal agreement that Congress won’t adjourn for the year without passing a long-delayed round of pandemic relief. An emerging $900 billion aid package from a bipartisan group of lawmakers hit a rough patch after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., swung against the effort. Still, negotiations are ongoing and the pressure remains intense.

The House has recessed for a few days, with leaders warning members to be prepared to return to Washington to vote on the year-end deals.

Negotiators on a separate $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill appeared to be moving in a positive direction, said the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. This bill would serve as a vehicle to carry any year-end virus assistance.

The breakdown over the aid package is a Capitol Hill head-scratcher. Trump has renewed a push for a fresh round of stimulus checks for Americans, proposing $600 per individual rather than the $1,200 that was sent out this spring. Cost concerns are responsible for the smaller amount.

Sending direct cash payments to households was not included in the bipartisan proposal or a lower cost plan from Senate Republicans that has failed twice. The idea of another round of cash but has been embraced by some of the president’s fiercest critics — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“We’re not going to go home for the Christmas holidays unless we make sure that we provide for the millions of families in this country who are suffering,” Sanders said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress would keep working up to or even after Christmas to get an agreement. The new Congress is being sworn in on Jan. 3.

The $900 billion-plus proposal provides sweeping new funds for vaccines, small businesses, health care providers, schools and families suffering from the virus crisis and the economic shutdowns.

A key holdup has been the standoff over more money for the states, that Democrats — and some Republicans — want and the liability shield that is McConnell’s top GOP priority but that most Democrats oppose.

The bipartisan group tried to marry those two provisions as a compromise.

McConnell had initially proposed a five-year liability shield from virus lawsuits, retroactive to December 2019, but the bipartisan group was eyeing a scaled-back shield of six months to a year. Labor and civil rights groups oppose any shield, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.

Democratic leaders had wanted far more in state and local aid, but were accepting of the lower $160 billion.

But many Republicans have long viewed the state and local aid as a bailout they would have trouble supporting, despite the pleas for funds coming from governors and mayors nationwide.

Late Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democrats pitched another liability proposal to the bipartisan group, but it was rejected by Republicans, according to a Senate aide granted anonymity to discuss the private session.

The Trump administration is back in the middle of the negotiations with a $916 billion plan. It would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.

The White House offer has the endorsement of the top House Republican and apparent backing from McConnell. Democrats oppose the plan in part because of the administration’s refusal to back the partial restoration, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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