Top lawmakers reach agreement on key hurdle in coronavirus relief talks


Washington — Top lawmakers on Capitol Hill appeared to strike a deal on a contentious provision in an emerging COVID-19 relief bill late Saturday, overcoming a key hurdle in talks over a bill that could come to a vote as soon as Sunday.

“I think 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,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Democrats had objected to a proposal by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would wind down three lending programs established by the Federal Reserve in the spring to address the economic toll of the pandemic. The disagreement threatened to derail talks over the massive $900 billion relief bill, which includes direct payments to taxpayers, expanded unemployment benefits and hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic-related aid.

The House and Senate convened Sunday afternoon and could vote on a relief and funding package by the end of the day. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told members to expect votes later in the day, and possibly “late into the evening.”

Congress passed a two-day extension of government funding that the president signed into law to avoid a government shutdown Friday night. That extension expires at midnight Sunday, meaning lawmakers would need to extend the deadline further if votes on the relief bill stretch into Monday. Leaders are hoping to combine the relief bill with the larger year-long $1.4 trillion spending package.

An aide to Toomey and a senior Democratic aide confirmed late Saturday that the two sides had reached an agreement on the language in Toomey’s proposal. Toomey said on a conference call on Sunday that he had agreed to narrow the language to apply only to the three lending facilities established by the CARES Act.

“I can tell you that, yes, we did narrow it,” Toomey said. “Because the Democrats made a fair point. That was too broad. And that might have captured facilities that we didn’t intend to capture, and so it was, yes, it was narrowed.”

Toomey also said he would support the final package: “Despite the significant reservations I have about some particular features, I think the good outweighs the bad and it is my intention, at this point, to vote for it.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the upper chamber’s top Democrat, said Saturday that negotiators were getting “very, very close,” and that he believed the House and Senate would both be able to take up the bill on Sunday.

“If things continue on this path and nothing gets in the way, we’ll be able to vote tomorrow,” Schumer told reporters before departing the Capitol late Saturday night.

Lawmakers were working through the weekend to reach a deal on government funding measure and the relief bill before the Christmas holiday, with several key programs set to expire by the end of the year. 

Alan He contributed reporting.

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