Congress averts shutdown; fight continues over pandemic aid

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Congress passed a two-day stopgap spending bill Friday night, averting a partial government shutdown and buying yet more time for frustratingly slow endgame negotiations on an almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package.

The virus aid talks remained on track, both sides said, but closing out final disagreements was proving difficult. Weekend sessions were on tap, and House leaders hoped for a vote on Sunday on the massive package, which wraps much of Capitol Hill's unfinished 2020 business into a take-it-or-leave-it behemoth that promises to be a foot thick — or more.

The House passed the temporary funding bill by a 320-60 vote. The Senate approved it by voice vote almost immediately afterward, and President Donald Trump signed it late Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said both sides remain intent on closing the deal, even as Democrats launched a concerted campaign to block an effort by Republicans to rein in emergency Federal Reserve lending powers. The Democrats said the GOP proposal would deprive President-elect Joe Biden of crucial tools to manage the economy.

Negotiations continued into Friday night but an agreement wasn't likely before Saturday, lawmakers and aides said. House lawmakers were told they wouldn’t have to report to work on Saturday but that a Sunday session was likely. The Senate will be voting on nominations.

The $900 billion package comes as the pandemic is delivering its most fearsome surge yet, killing more than 3,000 victims per day and straining the nation's health care system. While vaccines are on the way, most people won't get them for months. Jobless claims are on the rise.

The emerging agreement would deliver more than $300 billion in aid to businesses and provide the jobless a $300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit and renewal of state benefits that would otherwise expire right after Christmas. It also includes $600 direct payments to individuals; vaccine distribution funds and money for renters, schools, the Postal Service and people needing food aid.

Democrats on Friday came out swinging at a key obstacle: a provision by conservative Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would close down more than $400 billion in potential Federal Reserve lending powers established under a relief bill in March. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is shutting down the programs at the end of December, but Toomey's language goes further, by barring the Fed from restarting the lending next year, and Democrats say the provision would tie Biden's hands and put the economy at risk.