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Week In Politics: Congress Continues To Debate A New Coronavirus Aid Package

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Congressional lawmakers avoided a government shutdown by giving themselves two more days to agree on a $900 billion COVID relief bill, or not. It's financial relief the American people have been waiting on for months and months. We're joined now, as we are most Saturdays, by NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Negotiators said they had a framework for this package a few days ago. What's in it?

ELVING: About a trillion dollars, Scott - a little less so, so it looks a little less expensive. That keeps some of the senators on board who said they would never vote for another trillion-dollar bill. And it is a lot smaller than the relief package we saw last spring. This one has about 300 billion for businesses, another 300 billion for unemployment benefits. We expect there to be stimulus checks again for individuals. They'll only be about $600 this time - about half as much as last spring. But aid to states and localities has been dropped for now, as well as liability protection for employers. And it's all attached to a stopgap funding bill passed just last night. And when we say stopgap, we mean just a little bit of stopgap.

SIMON: Yeah.

ELVING: It only lasts until tomorrow night, which is kind of a nice metaphor for how our federal budget has been working in recent years.

SIMON: Democrats won't get all - aren't getting all of what they want. Republicans aren't either. I'm not sure where they couldn't have just recognized the obvious six months ago and passed a bill. But is this exhausted kind of compromise a preview of how the incoming Congress might work?

ELVING: Oh, you have to hope not. But on the other hand, why expect better? Unless the Democrats can win both those runoff elections in Georgia in January, there will be divided government. And if the Democrats are nominally in charge, their margin in the House is only going to be a handful of seats. And in the Senate, there would be no margin at all. It would be 50-50, with the vice president - that would be Kamala Harris by then - breaking the tie. So everything will be a negotiation with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, much as it is now.

SIMON: Ron, even with news of a vaccine, the crisis in America just grows deeper by the week. The numbers of those who die each day is heart-wrenching - the number of infections, hospitals running out of space. And so many Americans are without work, face eviction and confront hunger.

ELVING: Absolutely. And not to skip over the health crisis, but just talking about the economics of this, unemployment claims this week were creeping up towards a million again. And that's a little unusual for this time of year. And as you say, we see the hospitals just absolutely overwhelmed with patients, deaths now exceeding 3,000 every day. And even with the hope that we see in the Pfizer vaccine rollout and likely soon Moderna as well, the virus is just taking the joy out of so many people's holidays this year.

We want to hold out hope for 2021. Maybe we can lower the political heat around the pandemic, get some consensus around these vaccines and maybe even extend that to wearing masks. It should help just to have a new year on the calendar and the promise of better times ahead.

SIMON: Fill us in. Historically, the last time there was a major crisis during a presidential transition was the Great Recession. President George W. Bush was handing off to Barack Obama, and President Bush kept working on the Great Recession crisis until he left the White House. But what has President Trump been doing?

ELVING: The president has been very busy on Twitter, essentially excoriating those people he thinks have not been loyal enough to him in his struggle since the election to deal with the results of that election. Perhaps it's too much to ask him to be magnanimous at this point. George W. Bush, after all, had served his two terms. He was not smarting from a failed reelection bid.

But at the same time, the president is a key piece in our government machinery. It just doesn't work well without that piece, and for some tasks, it doesn't work at all. So this president, any president needs to focus not on his own fate but on the travails facing the country. And he needs to tell the Russians to knock it off.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Happy holidays, Scott.

SIMON: And also to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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