Congress reaches deal on new COVID-19 relief bill as cases soar
A field planted with white flags near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C., serves as a reminder of the toll of COVID-19. Photo by Katie King.

    WASHINGTON, D.C. — After months of failed negotiations, Congress reached a deal Sunday on a $900 billion coronavirus relief package. The bill is expected to pass Monday.

    “At long last, we have the bipartisan breakthrough the country has needed,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor.

    With the coronavirus pandemic accelerating, Congress was under fire for failing to pass a relief measure. McConnell previously vowed legislators would remain in session — even over the holidays — until they reached an agreement.

    Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said the plan will deliver critically needed funds to struggling Americans. But they believe it’s overall inadequate and plan to push for more after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

    The $900 billion relief package is expected to provide $600 checks to individuals and an extra $300 a week for those on unemployment. It would further allocate funding for food and housing assistance and the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.

    The plan would also put $284 billion into Paycheck Protection Program small business loans, congressional leaders said, which have provided a lifeline for struggling businesses.

    After recent negotiations, the bill is no longer expected to include a provision promoted by Republicans that would shield businesses from some pandemic-related lawsuits. Funding for local and state governments, which Democrats have pushed for, was also nixed.

    The latest compromise comes after months of failed efforts to get a coronavirus relief bill through the Senate. The House passed a $3.4 trillion measure dubbed the Heroes Act in May and a revised $2.2 trillion version in October, but neither effort got any traction in the upper chamber, with McConnell expressing derision of them.

    Silicon Valley’s representatives were hoping one of the more extensive relief packages would pass. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) all supported the Heroes Act.

    Khanna said this week on Twitter that he was disappointed with the current proposal.

    “We will get checks for the American people,” he wrote. “But let’s have the honesty and decency not to spin this package as a kind of victory or negotiation success. People have the right to expect more.”

    Lofgren previously told San José Spotlight providing relief for local and state governments was crucial. States are facing significant budget deficits, she said, because their revenue streams have disappeared.

    “If we don’t provide some help, there’s going to be massive layoffs from state and local governments and among schools, adding to the unemployment problem,” she said.

    Unemployment is soaring along with COVID-19 cases

    As politicians battled over the final details, the need for assistance only grew more urgent. COVID-19 cases soared, unemployment remains high, and California and other states have reimposed lockdowns to try and contain the outbreak.

    In California, the Employment Development Department alerted roughly three million residents this week that their federal unemployment benefits would end Dec. 26 unless Congress took action to extend them.

    “The EDD is sending emails, text messages and mailed notices to ensure claimants are aware of the expiring benefits, what EDD is doing to minimize impacts and other resources available to assist during this difficult time,” the agency said in a statement.

    The number of claims for various unemployment benefits in the first week of December hit 341,813. That tally was up a whopping 600% from the same time last year.

    While many Californians are struggling with unemployment, others are battling for their lives. The pandemic is surging throughout the state, including in Santa Clara County.

    As of Thursday, the seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases was 1,136, according to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. That’s the highest it’s ever been in the county. By comparison, throughout September and October, the seven-day rolling average of new cases hovered in the 100s.

    The county’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll, as of Thursday, was 566.

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    The spike in COVID-19 cases statewide, coupled with a critical shortage of intensive care unit beds, recently prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact the new restrictions and shutdowns.

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) recently said she supported the governor’s actions. The congresswoman promised struggling residents that help was on the way.

    “I understand the emotional, physical and often financial toll that these measures take on Californians,” she said. “Congress is finally on the cusp of passing additional federal COVID-19 relief that will make it easier for businesses and workers to obey public health orders.”

    Coronavirus deaths in the United States surpassed 300,000 earlier this month.

    Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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