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Congress Nears Deal On Another Round Of Pandemic Relief

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The number of people filing for unemployment is growing, but Congress may finally be ready to offer some help. Lawmakers are closing in on another round of coronavirus relief. That news sent the stock market to another record high yesterday. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So negotiators are still fighting over the details of this relief package, but what do we know about the broad outlines of it?

HORSLEY: We expect the package will include direct payments of around $600 to many Americans, similar to the $1,200 payments that went out in the spring. There are more forgivable loans for businesses, more money for food stamps and a temporary $300 a week supplement for unemployment benefits. Now, that's only half the supplement the federal government was offering in the spring and early summer. But Stephen Pingle (ph), who lost his job installing Internet cable in Nashville, says the extra money would be welcome.

STEPHEN PINGLE: Any little bit helps. It might not be enough to live a normal life, but it would be better than nothing.

HORSLEY: The relief bill would also provide a short-term extension of emergency jobless benefits, which otherwise are set to run out the day after Christmas.

MARTIN: There's also money for vaccine distribution, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. And the medical piece of this is really important because right now the pandemic is just spreading out of control. Pingle's dad runs a window washing business in Tennessee, and he's been really careful to keep both his workers and clients safe. But with so many cases circulating right now, Pingle says his dad is thinking of shutting the business down temporarily.

PINGLE: Now, it just feels like it's spreading so much that it's a little bit reckless to be going into people's houses, especially because you can't guarantee what kind of precautions they're taking. And we really don't want to be part of the spread.

MARTIN: I mean, when businesses or their customers are that nervous about getting sick, that's not good for the economy.

HORSLEY: No, it's not. And we've seen this as hospitals have been filling up, restaurants and stores have been emptying out. And that just puts more people on the unemployment line. New applications for jobless benefits jumped again last week to about 1.3 million. Tara Burton (ph) sees this in Denver, where she used to work as a bartender and waitress. In large parts of Colorado now, no indoor dining is allowed. And, of course, outdoor dining in December is not a lot of fun.

TARA BURTON: I'm seeing a lot more friends unemployed. You know, my neighbor, she's in the same industry and she went back to work for about a month, and now she's back on unemployment.

HORSLEY: So Burton says it's going to be a slim Christmas, and she would welcome even a small increase in her unemployment benefit as part of this relief package.

MARTIN: But you said it's short term. How short are we talking about?

HORSLEY: Yeah, it could be as short as 10 weeks, which would get us only to the end of February. And the trouble is, even with the encouraging vaccine news that we've been seeing, Burton is doubtful she's going to be back to work that quickly.

BURTON: It feels like it's going to be more the end of spring or beginning of summer when we start really being able to kind of open the floodgates again, so to speak. We are ready to get back at it, but hunker down for just a little bit longer, and and we'll get there. I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is close enough to like, know it's not a train.

HORSLEY: Earlier, Rachel, lawmakers had been discussing something like four months of extra unemployment help. But Republicans reportedly want to dial that back so that they can include those direct payments of $600 or so to people and still keep the overall price tag of the relief bill to around $900 billion. You can certainly understand the political rationale for including those direct payments. I mean, who doesn't want to get 600 bucks from the government? But in trying to limit the overall size of the package, Congress may end up shortchanging the people who really need the money the most and, by the way, the program that delivers the biggest economic boost. If that happens, we could find ourselves, you know, staring at another economic cliff in just a couple of months, Rachel.

MARTIN: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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