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Congressional Leaders Say They Are Nearing Agreement On Coronavirus Relief Package

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After months of partisan squabbling, congressional leaders say they are nearing an agreement on a coronavirus relief package. With just days to go before a self-imposed deadline, lawmakers are working through final details of a roughly $900 billion bill that is intended to send much-needed relief to struggling businesses and families. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he is optimistic that a deal will be completed soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities.

CHANG: Well, joining us now to talk about the ongoing talks is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So where do things stand now? I mean, it sounds like they're close, but not quite there.

SNELL: Yeah. So congressional leaders worked late into the night last night. And leaders are really sounding positive, as you heard from McConnell there. The roughly $900 billion looks a lot like the bipartisan agreement we've been talking about for the past few days. You know, notably, there's money for the paycheck protection program, and it includes some changes that would allow more live venues and restaurants and other companies like that to get those forgivable loans, and about $300 in weekly federal unemployment payments for about four months. And the latest critical addition is another round of stimulus checks.

CHANG: Oh.

SNELL: You know, the exact figure isn't clear yet, but staff and senators say they're talking about something that's closer to half of the $1,200 checks that went out earlier this year. But they did drop the fight over state and local funding and liability reforms.

CHANG: OK. So the stimulus checks are going to be half. That's a lot less than people like Senator Bernie Sanders have been demanding.

SNELL: Right.

CHANG: So do you think an agreement like this can actually pass?

SNELL: You know, it's still really hard to say. And, you know, to some degree it's hard to say because the bill language isn't final. But Sanders did tell reporters in the hallway in the Capitol that this is a good start. And he views it as progress to have payments in the bill, but he's going to push for more from President-elect Biden when he takes office. Leaders say the goal is to get strong bipartisan support, not the kind of unanimous support that the previous bills got. They want to add this to a spending bill to keep the government funded through the end of September. And they're doing that because, as you know, Congress loves a big package (laughter)...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SNELL: ...Even if they say they don't because it makes it easier to cobble together enough votes to actually get something passed. You know, few people want to say they voted against military spending and COVID relief and funding for the entire federal government. But, as you also know, there are always a few people, like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who kind of vote and go their own way and are likely to go no on something like this.

CHANG: Huh. Well, how quickly do you think people would actually feel any impact from this legislation if it does indeed pass?

SNELL: Well, it kind of goes provision to provision. With the eviction and student loan relief, it would simply mean that the programs that already exist won't expire as they're scheduled to at the end of the year. Unemployment insurance is likely to start in January, but we have seen serious lags in states distributing these funds in the past. And the checks, you know, they took a long time to distribute the last time, but the IRS had to build a whole new website and a system to send them out, and, you know, they also had to identify who should receive them all. So that part should go faster. One question still remains is how to determine how much each person should receive.

CHANG: And real quick, I mean, President-elect Biden has talked about Congress passing something just sort of as a down payment on future relief. Do you think leaders in Congress actually see this bill that way?

SNELL: Democrats certainly do. But Republicans I've talked to have really mixed feelings about this. Some say, yes, more relief is needed, but others say the vaccine is on the way, and they think this bill should be enough to patch the hole until then.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kelsey Snell.

Thanks so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.