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US lawmakers nearing stimulus deal amid signs of economic distress

Heather SCOTT
·3-min read

As lawmakers on Thursday inched closer to a new stimulus package to help the pandemic-battered US economy, government data showed more workers were applying for unemployment benefits as the recovery stalled.

A government relief package to aid struggling businesses and jobless workers is seen as essential in getting the world's largest economy back on its feet amid a resurgence of Covid-19 infections, even as new vaccines offer hope that life can return to normal.

Without an agreement, millions of unemployed workers will lose their special pandemic benefits before the end of the year.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday was optimistic and repeated his pledge to keep lawmakers in Washington until there is an agreement.

"I am heartened by our discussions and our progress. I believe all sides are working in good faith toward our shared goal of getting an outcome," he said in a statement, noting that that the package would include direct payments to Americans.

"We are going to stay right here until we are finished, even if that means working into or through the weekend," he said.

Democratic leaders House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer held talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin late into the night Wednesday, and were due to speak again early Thursday, Pelosi's deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill said on Twitter.

Schumer said Thursday that legislators were nearing agreement but cautioned that "While many, if not all, of the difficult topics are behind us, a few final issues must be hammered out."

President-elect Joe Biden again urged immediate help for jobless workers and businesses.

"People are struggling to pay their bills, stay in their homes, and put food on the table. Congress needs to pass a relief package immediately," Biden tweeted.

Outgoing President Donald Trump also chimed in on Twitter, saying "stimulus talks looking very good."

- Rising job losses -

After posting a sharp recovery over the summer, the world's largest economy has shown signs of stalling.

Weekly data from the Labor Department released Thursday showed new applications for unemployment benefits rose again last week to 885,000, the fourth increase in the past five weeks.

And while manufacturing has been one of the bright spots in the economy, a Federal Reserve survey of the Philadelphia region of the northeastern United States showed factory activity slowed in November, echoing softening in other regions.

"The federal aid package can't come a day too soon to mitigate job losses, declines in retail spending and a host of other measures that have headed down in the last two months," Robert Frick of Navy Federal Credit Union said.

- Rising hope -

Despite months of negotiations, lawmakers in Washington have failed to break an impasse over a new package to follow the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which provided loans and grants to businesses and expanded aid to workers hurt by the pandemic who would not normally be eligible for jobless benefits.

Hope rose for an agreement after a bipartisan group of legislators floated a compromise option with a smaller price tag that excluded contentious provisions like aid for state and local governments and liability protection for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits.

The package is expected to be around $900 billion and include another round of direct payments to American taxpayers, and attach the relief bill to a spending plan that keeps the government operating after funding runs out at midnight Friday.

McConnell said lawmakers could if necessary extend the deadline "for a very, very short window of time" as they finalize legislation to win approval in both chambers.

The US is going through an especially brutal period of Covid-19 cases, hitting more than 3,700 deaths and over 250,000 new infections in 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday.

American experts were meeting Thursday to decide whether to recommend approval of Moderna's Covid-19 shot, potentially paving the way for a second vaccine early next week after the rollout of the one from Pfizer-BioNTech.