Congress closing in on $900B COVID relief deal that could include second stimulus check

Congressional leaders are closing in on a long-awaited coronavirus relief bill that could include a second round of direct payments to millions of Americans still reeling from the pandemic-induced recession.

The measure under discussion, which costs about $900 billion, is expected to exclude two of the most contentious issues: funding for state and local governments and a liability shield for businesses against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

But the four leaders are also discussing adding another stimulus check to the package. It's unclear whether the payments would match the size of the checks in the March CARES Act, which sent up to $1,200 to adults earning less than $99,000 and included $500 for dependents under the age of 17. The Trump administration previously proposed sending $600 stimulus checks as a way to placate deficit-weary Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy met multiple times on Tuesday to discuss a relief package and were expected to continue negotiations on Wednesday.

Their meeting came after a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a $748 billion bill that included $300-a-week in sweetened jobless aid for 16 weeks, $300 billion for small businesses, $35 billion for health-care providers and $82 billion for schools. A more controversial $160 billion add-on would include aid for state and local governments and a liability shield for businesses against COVID-related lawsuits — the two thorniest issues that have plagued negotiations for months.

"We made major headway for hammering out a targeted relief package," McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Schumer also said that lawmakers are close to striking a deal, but said his party would push for another aid package next year when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.

"It's not a done deal yet," Schumer said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "But we are very close. For Democrats, this has always been about getting the American people the relief they need."

President Trump has been a vocal supporter of sending a second stimulus check to Americans and has received the backing from lawmakers across the political aisle, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo. Both senators had threatened to use the Friday government funding deadline to try to force a vote on the stimulus checks.

The bill is also expected to include an extension of boosted federal unemployment benefits — though it will likely fall short of the $600-a-week payments that expired at the end of July — as well as another tranche of funding for small businesses. Other components of the deal include funding for vaccine distribution, education, transportation and health care.

Relief talks come at an increasingly perilous time for the nation as it teeters on the brink of another economic downturn.

Job growth is slowing -- the Labor Department said last week that the economy created just 245,000 new positions last month, the smallest amount since the recovery began -- state and local governments are implementing more restriction measures and key lifelines that propped up the economy in the early days of the pandemic are poised to expire at the end of the year.

One estimate found that at least 12 million laid-off workers will be left without an income the day after Christmas when two federal jobless aid programs established by the March CARES Act expire.

The negotiators are rushing to attach the deal to a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending deal, which needs to pass by Friday in order to prevent a government shutdown at midnight. Pelosi and McConnell have both indicated they want to combine coronavirus relief with the spending measure.

That gives leaders just a few days to finalize the aid package and spending bill, approve them in both chambers and send to Trump's desk for his signature.