After months of political posturing in Washington, Congress and the White House on Dec. 20 finally inked an agreement on a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, meant to get the nation through the worst of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic this winter.
Some of the big cornerstones are 11 weeks of federal unemployment relief, now at $300 each week, as well as a $600 stimulus check – down from $1,200 in the spring – and relief for small businesses slammed by the pandemic and related business closures.
“More help is on the way,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the evening of Dec. 20, in announcing the deal between the Democrat and Republican heads in both the House and Senate.
“There will be another major rescue package for the American people. As our citizens continue battling the coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone.
The $900 billion stimulus bill is less than the $2 trillion House Democrats sought, but still more than the $500 billion proposed by Senate Republicans.
Talks were triggered earlier this month by calls for a compromise, coming out of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, where Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th District, serves as the Democrat co-chair.
“For the American people, this deal means there’s now some hope on the horizon,” Gottheimer and Rep. Thomas Reed, the Republican co-chair from New York, said in a Dec. 20 statement.
The state’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Phil Murphy conceded that the package is far from perfect, and that a new CARES Act would need to be hashed out come the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Union County Democrat elected in 2018, admitted that the proposed CARES Act “is not enough” but that it “does at least some of everything that we need,” like small business aid and relief for “our folks who lost their jobs” and “state and local governments, enough to get through the winter.”
“2021 is going to be a very long and tough year for our economy,” Sen. Cory Booker, a Newark Democrat, said this month.
The focus going into the Biden administration will be “about how are we going to have a long-term vision for getting the support we need to get our economy out of this trench.”
Murphy contended that the bill falls below the $3 trillion to $4 trillion needed in order to provide funding for state and local governments hit hard by the pandemic. That facet, a non-starter among Republicans, was taken out of the CARES Act, as were liability protections for businesses against COVID-19 legal suits.
“Is the stuff in this bill stuff that we’ll take? Yes,” he told MSNBC on Dec. 20. “But even those programs are not big enough. and the scope of this compromise is not nearly as big enough in its entirety.”
“This is not a normal, even somewhat normal, recession. This is a historical period, we need to meet this moment with strength and with passion and big numbers. and right now, none of that is happening.
The deal calls for $600 checks for adults and children, down from $1,200 during the first CARES Act over the spring. The payment size decreases for those who earned at least $75,000 in 2019, and is phased out altogether for anyone who earned more than $99,000 in 2019.
The bill calls for 11 weeks of federal unemployment relief, going into March. The payments come out to $300 a week, but are not retroactive. The prior bonuses were $600 a week, and expired in late July.
President Donald Trump approved additional relief over the summer for $300 weekly unemployment checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but those soon ran dry.
The bill extends an unemployment program specifically for contract and freelance workers, part-time workers, sole proprietors and those who are self-employed. And it extends a federal program adding on 13 weeks of unemployment benefits. Both were set to expire in less than a week.
The deal calls for $284 billion for two rounds of aid under the Paycheck Protection Program, a set of federal forgivable loans that were capped at $10 million, for businesses with up to 300 employees. Business owners can deduct the costs of the loans when filing their federal tax returns.
There are carveouts for bars and restaurants, nonprofits, local newspapers, and television and radio stations. There is also $15 billion for venues that host live events, as well as independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions.
And there is $20 billion for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Businesses can get a tax credit for providing paid sick leave to their employees.
The package includes $47 billion to bolster the transportation sector hit hard by the pandemic as millions of Americans stay home. That includes $18 billion for airliners and airports; $14 billion for public transportation agencies such as NJ Transit; $10 billion for highways; $2 billion for buses and ferries; and $1 billion for Amtrak.
The CARES Act calls for $20 billion to help with the purchase of vaccines and $8 billion for their distribution and $20 billion to help states with testing and contact tracing.
The CARES Act calls for $20 billion towards universities. Higher education institutions across the country have seen tuition plummet, and many other sources of revenue dry up.