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Deal Nears On COVID Relief After Senators Clear Major Hurdle

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., seen here on Capitol Hill in May, had proposed curbing the Federal Reserve's ability to offer emergency loans.
Alex Wong
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Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., seen here on Capitol Hill in May, had proposed curbing the Federal Reserve's ability to offer emergency loans.

Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET

Congressional lawmakers say they've cleared a major obstacle in their path to passing a $900 billion COVID relief package, with votes expected as soon as Sunday.

The latest standoff holding up the measure, which both parties say is crucial for the American people, centered on a GOP-backed provision led by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey that would require the Federal Reserve to seek congressional approval for certain lending authorities.

Speaking on the Senate floor early Sunday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said legislators are "winnowing down the remaining differences" in the legislation.

"I believe I can speak for all sides when I say I hope and expect to have a final agreement nailed down in a matter of hours," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., concurred in separate remarks on the floor, saying, "barring a major mishap, the Senate and House will be able to vote on final legislation as early as tonight."

"The Toomey legislation was the last significant stumbling block to a bipartisan agreement," Schumer added.

The sticking point

On Saturday, Toomey argued on the Senate floor that three pandemic-related lending programs should end because they've "achieved their purpose."

Democrats pushed back, arguing that Toomey's provision would also prevent future treasury secretaries from restarting the lending programs.

But legislators say they reached a compromise on the issue late Saturday, after hours of talks between Toomey and Schumer.

According to a senior Democratic aide: "Toomey has agreed to drop the broad language in his proposal that would have prevented the Fed Chair from establishing similar facilities in the future to the ones created [by the CARES Act] in March."

Toomey's office said in a statement Sunday morning that the "tentative agreement is an unqualified victory for taxpayers," adding that the deal "will preserve Fed independence and prevent Democrats from hijacking these programs for political and social policy purposes."

In a call with reporters Sunday morning, Toomey said he's "very pleased with the conclusions we have come to" and that while the technical language is still being finalized, he plans to support the legislation.

"Despite the significant reservations I have about some particular features, I think the good outweighs the bad and it is my intention at this time to vote for it," he said.

Toomey pushed back on characterizations that his proposal was politically motivated and designed to weaken the Biden administration's ability to respond to future crises, calling it "completely and utterly false."

He said his stance on the issue of closing these pandemic-related lending facilities has been consistent since the first drafting of COVID response legislation in the spring.

"I was the guy in March — when I don't think anybody knew who the next president was going to be — I was arguing that we should have a Sept. 30 close on [these facilities]," Toomey said. "I didn't get my way on that. I settled for Dec. 31 and that's what we put in the statute."

Toomey said he was concerned by an "aggressive effort" from some Democrats "to make the case that these programs don't end on Dec. 31." But he acknowledged his initial language on the issue was "too broad" and "might have captured facilities that we didn't intend to capture." That language is now being narrowed.

The package's key provisions

Speaking Sunday morning on CNN's State of the Union, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, addressed the amount of direct payments to Americans, which had been an earlier point of contention in negotiations.

"The check is going to be roughly $600 a person," he said. "That will help, although I know people would like it to be a larger number."

As NPR's Kelsey Snell reported Saturday, congressional leaders had resolved nearly every other sticking point, from ironing out issues with food stamps and disaster funds to dropping months-long fights over state and local funding and liability reform.

Among its provisions, the package includes the direct payments to qualifying Americans, a boost in weekly unemployment benefits, and funds for small business aid and vaccine distribution.

It would be the first major piece of legislation in response to the pandemic since the $2 trillion CARES Act passed in March.

Saturday's compromise came as the clock ticked down on a two-day stop-gap spending bill Congress approved Friday to enable lawmakers to try to finish negotiations.

Both Schumer and McConnell had previously vowed to stay through the Christmas holiday if need be in order to get a relief measure passed.

Added Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on ABC's This Week: "The great news is: Congress is not going to be the Grinch. We're going to get this package done."

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed reporting.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
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