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Direct Cash Payments Likely as Lawmakers Near COVID Aid Deal

Photo courtesy of Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

A new round of stimulus checks is expected to be included, sources familiar with the negotiations say, but the dollar amount is not clear.

Posted: Dec 16, 2020 11:05 AM

NBC News- WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and the White House are nearing agreement on a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief deal that will likely include a new round of direct payments, three sources familiar with the negotiations said Wednesday.

The emerging package will include enhanced federal jobless benefits, small business funding and money to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The dollar amount of the stimulus payments has not yet been determined — some aides said it could be $600-per-person while others said it may be higher.

Negotiators have not yet settled on an income cap for the direct payments, as was done for the previous round of payments approved in March. The proposal, which is still being finalized and does not have leadership agreement, is not expected to include liability protections for employers or state or local funding, two sticking points in negotiations that prevented Congress from passing meaningful Covid-19 legislation for months.

On Wednesday, leaders of both parties sounded more optimistic than they've been in months.

"It's not a done deal yet. But we are very close," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The new signs of progress come after a day of meetings between the four congressional leaders. A deal would break months of stalemate and partisan sniping while giving fresh hope for a relief package ahead of the holidays as Covid-19 cases surge across the United States.

"We made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Wednesday. "We committed to continuing these urgent discussions until we have an agreement, and we agreed we will not leave town until we've made law."

Two aides familiar with the talks said the emerging plan would seek "other avenues" to deliver assistance to state and local governments, which has been a priority of Democrats.

The basis of the negotiations is a $748 billion proposal that a bipartisan working group released earlier in the week, although the specifics of some provisions are being adjusted.

That plan did not include direct payments. But things shifted after bipartisan pressure from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as well as House progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-D-N.Y. President Donald Trump has also been a vocal supporter of cash payments.

"When it comes to direct payments, I'm not opposed to them but we have to up the ante, we have to put more money into the effort," Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on CNN. "And I think it's money well spent to give to families, a helping hand at this point in our economy." The logjam began to ease after top Democrats include Durbin and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested dropping the state and local relief, as well as a liability protections, for the current round of talks in order to come to an agreement.

The optimistic tone shift came after Schumer, McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met late into the evening Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin joining the negotiations by phone.

Mnuchin suggested direct payments in the range of $900, one source said.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters the payments are being discussed at a level of "$600 to $700 per individual."

"Hopefully the package comes together," Thune said. "The House will move on it first and then we'll get it over here, and we can wrap things up."

The urgency is high as a handful of Covid-19 protections will expire in the coming days unless a bill is passed, including jobless benefits on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas.

Lawmakers are trying to hammer out a final deal by Friday, when Congress hits the deadline to pass legislation to keep the government funded. Leaders from both parties hope to attach the Covid-19 aid package to the government funding bill.

"As far as the deadline on Friday — it could I mean by the time everything gets processed but I think there's a real incentive to get it done by then," Thune said. "I think both sides are sufficiently motivated given the time of the year and everything that's at stake and trying to get virus relief out there."

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