The most optimistic interpretation of the agreement is that despite a tortured process, a deeply divided Capitol Hill finally navigated a way to consensus, pushed by a core of more moderate bipartisan senators who catalyzed compromise in a time-honored fashion.
Steps to extend unemployment benefits, make $600 stimulus payments to some adults, raise food stamps and send money to food pantries, speed vaccine deployments and keep businesses like restaurants afloat will make a tangible difference to American lives. But it is not as if Congress had a choice, and its delay significantly worsened the pain of many Americans.
The deprivation caused by the latest Covid-19 surge came at a moment when some jobless benefits had already expired, and many citizens were facing eviction or are going hungry. New restrictions caused by the out-of-control pandemic are stifling businesses and threaten to reverse a halting recovery.
And any ideas that Sunday’s breakthrough is a model for a less dysfunctional Washington during a new presidency next year are undercut by the way the bitter process of the last few weeks revealed vast ideological chasms, suggesting the disconnect in a fractured political system is becoming ever more extreme. This was borne out by the fact that Congress keeps having to pass short-term spending bills to avert a government shutdown.
Some signs of hope
Still, a weekend in which the dangers inherent in Trump’s final weeks in power and the institutional fault lines of Washington were on full display could not completely extinguish the potential for hope borne by new vaccines.
But Slaoui also warned that in the short-term, the appalling toll of the pandemic — which is now claiming an average of 2,500 lives in the US every day — will get worse. “There will be a continuing surge,” Slaoui told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“Exactly what the numbers may be, I don’t know. But, unfortunately, they’re going to be higher than what they are today, most likely.”
While members of Congress and others at the front of the priority line are getting injections now, it could be many months before all Americans get the same protection, he said.
“If everything goes well, we may see a circumstance whereby late spring, people who are in lower risk categories can get this vaccine,” Murthy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“But that would really require everything to go exactly on schedule. I think it’s more realistic to assume that it may be closer to mid-summer, early fall when this vaccine makes its way to the general population.”
Democrats and Republicans fight to spin the deal
Congress’ pandemic relief deal would provide money for the purchase and distribution of vaccines — something both sides should be happy about.
But the contentious atmosphere surrounding the agreement and the testing times ahead were evident in the way that Democratic leaders panned their Republican colleagues, even as they welcomed the compromise.
“Make no mistake about it, this agreement is far from perfect, but it will deliver emergency relief to a nation in the throes of a genuine emergency,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor.
“The agreement on this package could be summed up by the expression better late than never, although I know many of my Republican colleagues wished it was never,” the New York Democrat said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also accused Republicans of holding up the agreement for weeks, even though critics say she overplayed her hand in demanding a package that was worth far more than the GOP was ready to accept. After all, Pelosi turned down a $1.8 trillion offer from the administration before the election, which turned out to be double the size of the final deal.
“What took so long? It’s because we could not get our Republican colleagues to crush the virus,” Pelosi said at a Sunday evening news conference.
Among the gaping divides exposed by the debate over the relief bill are the Republican refusals to permit further aid to cash-strapped states and local governments that will be crucial in distributing the vaccine and getting kids back to school. Democrats blocked GOP efforts to provide liability protection to businesses that try to operate even while the virus is rampant.
Both provisions were deal-breakers for weeks and are certain to reemerge when Biden and Democrats seek another relief package in the new year.
Some Republican senators are, after years abetting Trump policies that exploded the deficit, now rediscovering their roots as budget hawks who are likely to be a severe impediment to Biden’s administration. Others, including Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, sought to limit the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority in another move that Democrats saw as an effort to curtail the power of the incoming Biden administration.
Such battles may be put on hold for the holidays. But they loom among Biden’s many challenges as soon as he is in the Oval Office.