Trump's border wall and a “three-martini lunch”: What the GOP fought to save in a second COVID bill

Congressional leaders on Sunday said they reached an agreement on a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief bill just days before many of the programs in the first round of stimulus passed in the spring were set to expire amid a nationwide spike in infections.

The bill includes $600 direct payments to most Americans, a temporary revival of the federal unemployment boost at $300 per week, and nearly $300 billion in forgivable small business loans, according to bill summaries obtained by The Washington Post. The bill would also extend the federal eviction moratorium through January and provide billions in funding for vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing, schools, transportation systems and live music venues. About $429 billion of the $900 billion total is from unused funds the Cares Act, which was the first round of federal funding passed earlier this year, provided for emergency lending programs from the Federal Reserve. Ultimately, the bill includes less than $500 billion in new funding.


Significantly, the deal does not include any aid to state and local governments, many of which are facing massive budget shortfalls due to severe declines in tax revenues and tourism. Economists have warned for months that failing to provide state and local relief would result in mass layoffs in the middle of the pandemic. Democrats agreed to drop their demand for state and local funding after McConnell agreed to drop his demand for broad lawsuit protections for businesses. The deal will also include $1.4 billion in new funding for Trump’s border wall, according to the Post.

Republicans also pushed to expand a Trump-backed tax deduction for business meals, which critics labeled the “three-martini lunch” tax break, in exchange for including expanded tax credits for low-income families and the working poor that Democrats demanded.

“Republicans are nickel-and-diming benefits for jobless workers, while at the same time pushing for tax breaks for three-martini power lunches. It’s unconscionable,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said during negotiations.


The bill text has not been released to the public as of Monday morning but Congress is expected to vote on the compromise proposal as soon as Monday. Both parties said they struck a deal on Sunday after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejected a $3.4 trillion and a $2.2 trillion bill approved by House Democrats months earlier and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., shot down McConnell’s $300 billion and $500 billion offers. Economists say the U.S. needs at least $2 trillion to $3 trillion in relief to get through next year’s mass vaccine distribution plan. Lawmakers have said that they expect to push for another round of relief once President-elect Joe Biden takes office and before many of the extended relief programs are set to expire in March.

The new deal came together after Democrats backed a bipartisan proposal from a group of senators including Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Unlike the bipartisan proposal, however, the deal reached by congressional leaders reportedly provides $600 direct payments to every adult and child in households earning up to $75,000 ($150,000 for couples) with lower benefits on a sliding scale for those earning up to $99,000. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., unsuccessful last-minute push for $1,200 payments, as were included in the Cares Act in March, appears to have helped revive the idea of direct payments at the final hour.

The bill will also include payments to families that have at least one undocumented member, unlike in the Cares Act, but will not include payments for about 13.5 million adult dependents. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the payments will begin to go out as soon as next week.


The deal will also include $300 per week federal unemployment boosts, half of the rate included in the Cares Act. Congressional negotiators reduced the length of the extension from 16 weeks to 11 weeks to include the direct payments. The previous unemployment boost expired in July.

The bill would also extend the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides unemployment to self-employed and gig workers, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides unemployment for people who have exhausted their regular benefits.


There’s an additional $284 billion in new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses to keep their employees. The deal expands eligibility for loans for nonprofits, churches, and news outlets, allowing for $15 billion to independent movie theaters and cultural institutions and $20 billion for targeted grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program. Some PPP funds are reserved for “very small” businesses, according to the Post. The changes were added after the PPP was criticized for disproportionately aiding larger companies.

The bill also extends the eviction moratorium  — but only through January 31, meaning that Biden would have to extend the deadline as soon as he takes office. It provides $25 billion in emergency assistance to renters, though it is unclear how that money will be distributed.

Another $20 billion is allocated to buy COVID vaccines, $8 billion to distribute vaccines, and $20 billion for testing. It also includes $82 billion to help schools and colleges upgrade their ventilation and $10 billion for child-care assistance.


Democrats also secured a tax credit for employers that offer paid sick leave, $13 billion in expanded food stamp benefits, and $7 billion to expand broadband access. The bill also includes $45 billion for transportation, including an additional $16 billion for airlines, $14 billion for transit systems, $10 billion for highways, and funding for airports and Amtrak.

“We have now reached agreement on a bill that will crush the virus and put money in the pockets of working families who are struggling,” Pelosi said in a statement on Sunday. “This emergency relief bill is an important initial step.”

“This is just the first step. This is an emergency,” Schumer said at a news conference on Sunday. “We need a second bill to continue dealing with the emergency and to start stimulating our economy so we get back to where we were. That will be job No. 1 in the new Biden administration.”


Biden has repeatedly called the $900 billion deal a “down payment” on a larger package.

“I am heartened to see members of Congress heed that message, reach across the aisle, and work together,” he said in a statement on Sunday. “But this action in the lame-duck session is just the beginning. Our work is far from over.”