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Capitol Hill Lawmakers Consider Additional Pandemic Aid


Some in Wall Street are warning that this winter will be grim for the U.S. economy - those words from JPMorgan in a note to the bank's clients. Unveiling his new economic team yesterday, President-elect Joe Biden had this promise.


JOE BIDEN: Our message to everybody struggling right now is this - help is on the way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Biden won't be sworn in for another 6 1/2 weeks. In the meantime, millions of Americans who were laid off are in danger of losing their financial lifeline right after Christmas. And Congress can't agree on which one of the many proposals under consideration to approve. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now. Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the president-elect does not have a lot of official power at this point. But Joe Biden is making his feelings known to Congress, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. Biden says he and his team are working on an economic package they'll present to Congress in the new year. But he also wants to see action now during the lame duck session. He knows there are millions of people who are out of work in this country. A lot of them have exhausted their savings. They're near the end of their rope. And right now, emergency unemployment benefits that Congress did pass back in the springtime are set to run out on December 26, which would be a real lump of coal unless something is done before then.


BIDEN: Right now, the full Congress should come together and pass a robust package for relief.

HORSLEY: Biden acknowledged any action taken now would be just a start. But he doesn't want to leave people with no government help during that nearly month-long period between Christmas and Inauguration Day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A real lump of coal, indeed. And Congress, though, has been at a stalemate over COVID relief for months now. So what exactly would make things change?

HORSLEY: It's not certain things will change. But there does seem to be some growing awareness that millions of people who are out of work are not magically all going to find jobs by December 26. A bipartisan group of senators did come out yesterday with a compromise relief proposal. Virginia Democrat Mark Warner says it's important they pass something.


MARK WARNER: It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge.

HORSLEY: That plan would extend unemployment benefits, provide another round of forgivable loans to small business, some aid to state and local governments. It would also provide a temporary shield for businesses against COVID related lawsuits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bipartisan plan - two words we haven't heard put together for a while.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it going anywhere?

HORSLEY: Hard to say. You know, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing an alternative plan. Democratic leaders have their own proposal. It's not clear what the president would go along with. All of this is really frustrating to people like Laura Blue (ph) of Newtown, Conn. She lost her job as a graphic designer back in the spring and has now run through her state unemployment benefits. And her extended benefits are set to run out this month unless Congress does something.

LAURA BLUE: They need to do their jobs. But I think many of us have little hope that they will do that given what they've done the last four years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's zoom out. How is this fight affecting the broader economy?

HORSLEY: The economy has held up better than a lot of people expected, partly thanks to the massive relief measures that Congress did pass back in the spring. But job growth has been slowing since the middle of summer. Some forecasters warn the country may have actually lost jobs in November. We'll find out on Friday. The vaccine news we've been getting in recent weeks does offer some really encouraging signs that, you know, maybe we'll be able to escape this pandemic sometime in the spring or the summer. But Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers yesterday a lot of families and businesses might need some extra help to weather these next few months.


JEROME POWELL: What we're hearing is that there are a lot of small businesses that are at risk of going out of business during this winter, which could be a tough few months.

HORSLEY: Powell, as usual, did not give a prescription to lawmakers about what exactly they should do. But, once again, he urged them to err on the side of doing too much rather than too little.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you so much.

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

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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