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Congress Reaches Pandemic Relief Deal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After months of failed talks, Congress and the White House have finally reached a deal to provide a fresh round of COVID relief totaling around $900 billion. Congress is now working to pass it and get it to President Trump's desk by Christmas. The deal is attached to the massive $1.4 trillion annual spending bill that funds the government. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is following the negotiations and joins us with the latest. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There are thousands of pages in this bill.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What are the most important things that people should know about?

DAVIS: Nearly 6,000 pages in this bill. There's a lot of stuff in here that's...

SHAPIRO: To be exact.

DAVIS: Yeah, exactly. There's a lot of stuff in here that's going to affect millions of people. But just some of the major highlights - it's going to extend expiring unemployment benefits by up to $300 a week into early spring. It's going to send out another round of those stimulus checks to the tune of $600 for every adult and child, up to certain income thresholds. And there's billions more for food stamp programs. There's another $300 million coming for the Paycheck Protection Program, which is that popular program that has boosted businesses all over the country this year. There's billions in there to get the vaccine out all across the country.

And all in this year, Congress has authorized about $3.5 trillion in pandemic-related relief. And there's more on the way. President-elect Joe Biden is going to ask for another round of stimulus in the early days of his administration.

SHAPIRO: There's also something in this bill that we've been hearing about since long before the pandemic - an end to surprise medical billing. What does that mean?

DAVIS: Yeah, this kind of just popped up in the final text, but it's a bill that's been trying to get through Congress for years. Essentially, when someone shows up at an in-network hospital or a health care facility, when they have insurance, they can be treated by a doctor who's outside of their network without ever even knowing it, and then they get hit with a big bill. It happens to a lot of people. This would essentially end that practice. It would require health care providers and insurers to negotiate over the prices and leave the patient out of it. It's very popular. It has been championed by Lamar Alexander. He's a Republican of Tennessee, and he's retiring this year. So he gets a big win on his way out the door.

SHAPIRO: So much in this bill is very popular. A lot of it has bipartisan support. So why did it take seven months of negotiations to get it done?

DAVIS: You know, leadership really messed this up. This has not been a tale of great political management. Speaker Nancy Pelosi for months refused to agree to anything less than $2 trillion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the same time drew a red line that he would not bring any bill to the floor that didn't include liability protections for coronavirus-related lawsuits.

In the end, they didn't get either one of those things. There had been this sort of uprising after the election from centrists in the House and Senate who just kind of had it with leadership's inability to get this done. And they assembled the top lines of this deal, what they would vote for and sort of forced leadership in the past couple of weeks to hammer out the details. Pelosi on the floor today described herself as heartbroken about this bill and where it ended up, but it was literally the best they could do.

SHAPIRO: Does the long, difficult road that this bill had to take forecast anything about what's to come in the new year?

DAVIS: I think it really could. You know, President-elect Biden has his work cut out for him when it comes to mending these congressional relationships. He says he can. He says he knows how to reach across the aisle and get deals. I think it's fair to say the relationship between these top leaders in Congress is terrible right now. You know, Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have been at odds for months. They've often been trading insults on the Senate floor. Here was Chuck Schumer just this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: The Republican leader's accusation that the blame for this bill's delay lies totally on one side is just ridiculous. It's "Alice In Wonderland" thinking. It defies all the facts as to what we have seen.

DAVIS: Then throw into this Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. They have very little regard for each other. McCarthy would very much like to take the speaker's gavel from her in the next election. It's a pretty bitter end to this Congress, and it does set the stage for what could be very difficult negotiations with Biden and especially congressional Republicans, who have been increasingly resistant to agreeing to any kind of new spending and have signaled that they might not be willing to go along in the new year, either.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.