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 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:
President-elect Joe Biden is predicting a “bleak future” if Congress doesn't take speedy action on an aid bill amid a nationwide spike in the virus that's hampering the country's economic recovery.
He also expressed concern that so far he’s seen “no detailed plan” from the Trump administration on how to distribute an approved coronavirus vaccine, but said he and his team are working on their own proposal to fill in the gaps.
In other developments:
- The Trump administration on Friday suspended all federal student loan payments through the end of January and kept interest rates at 0%, extending a moratorium that started early in the pandemic but was set to expire at the end of this month.
- States faced a deadline on Friday to place orders for the coronavirus vaccine as many reported record infections, hospitalizations and deaths, while hospitals were pushed to the breaking point — with the worst feared yet to come.
- With the viral pandemic accelerating across the country, America’s employers sharply scaled back their hiring last month, adding 245,000 jobs, the fewest since April and the fifth straight monthly slowdown.
- As hospital systems struggle through the pandemic, some are dealing with another threat: cyberattacks. A Vermont hospital was attacked in October, forcing the facility to produce hand-written laboratory results and rely on fax machines with the internet down.
- The U.N. health chief declared Friday that positive results from coronavirus vaccine trials mean the world “can begin to dream about the end of the pandemic,” but he said rich and powerful nations must not trample the poor and marginalized “in the stampede for vaccines.”
- Oscar season is pushing ahead, despite the pandemic, despite a year where most of the biggest releases were postponed. The timetable has shifted two months: The Academy Awards are to be held April 25. And awards season, such as it is, has gone virtual. The Oscar race will Zoomed.