The $908 billion coronavirus relief framework unveiled last week by a group of bipartisan senators has garnered support from key congressional leaders, spurring hope that lawmakers will be able to strike a deal before the end of the year.
But obstacles remain: Progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have pushed back against some elements of the proposal, including the absence of a second $1,200 stimulus check for most families.
The aid package, set to be released Monday, allocates about $300 billion in funding for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, $240 billion in aid for state and local governments, $180 billion to extend boosted unemployment benefits at $300 per week through March and a temporary moratorium on COVID-19 liability lawsuits to allow states enough time to design their own laws.
It would also funnel $16 billion into vaccine distribution, testing, and contact tracing, put $82 billion into education, and give $45 billion for transportation.
But without a fresh round of direct cash payments — and with coronavirus-related liability protections for corporations — Sanders said he could not back the emerging compromise unless it was "significantly revised."
"It is unacceptable that the proposal does not even do what the CARES Act did and provide, at the very least, a $1,200 direct payment to working-class Americans and $500 for their kids," Sanders said in a statement last week. "Tens of millions of Americans living in desperation today would receive absolutely no financial help from this proposal. That is not acceptable."
That sentiment was echoed by two members of the so-called "Squad," made up of four progressive congresswomen, including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
"COVID relief needs to directly help everyday people," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "People need stimulus checks & UI."
"Canada did $2,000/monthly. The US is the richest nation on earth and a 2nd stimulus check is getting blocked bc GOP want corporate bailouts & austerity in 'exchange' for it," she added. "Maybe if everyone in the US incorporated as an LLC, Mitch McConnell would actually do something for them."
Tlaib, meanwhile, said it was "unbelievable" that the relief package did not include a second $1,200 check, noting that Americans "can't afford water" to wash their hands, are "crowdfunding to bury loved ones they lost to COVID-19" and are at risk of eviction.
"Stimulus check now (monthly)!" she tweeted. "It would have the most impact on lives, especially children."
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has also said the relief bill needs to include direct payments for families and individuals.
The federal government sent out stimulus checks earlier this year as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which Congress passed in March. The money could be substantial, particularly for low-income individuals who qualified for the maximum one-time payment of $1,200 (or $2,400 for couples). The payments were tapered for higher-earners and phase out completely for individuals who earn more than $99,000. Children under the age of 17 also received a check for $500.
A study published by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University in June found that without the passage of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, one measure of the nation's poverty level would have surged to 16.3% from 12.8% pre-crisis. (During the 2008 financial crisis, the poverty level peaked around 16%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).
President-elect Joe Biden, who has endorsed the $908 billion deal, expressed hope that a second check may be included after weekend negotiations. But he said the deal is "immediately needed" and argued that additional assistance could come next year once he's sworn in as president.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Democrat, suggested that excluding the direct payments, while guaranteeing small-business aid and protections for renters, was the only way to reach an agreement with Republicans.
“The $1,200 check, it cost we believe nationally $300 billion to give you an idea,” he said on ABC's "This Week." “The Democrats have always wanted a larger number, but we were told we couldn’t get anything through the Republicans, except this $900 billion level.”
For months, Republicans have balked at another multitrillion-dollar relief package, sounding the alarm over the nation's ballooning deficit, which totaled a record $3.1 trillion for the 2020 fiscal year.
"This is not a stimulus bill, it’s a relief bill,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said during an interview on "Fox News Sunday." “And it’s something for the next three to four months to help those in greatest need.”