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Congressional hearing will likely spotlight how split Powell & Mnuchin are over pandemic lending


U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell appear together before a congressional panel on Tuesday in a hearing likely to highlight divisions over what more needs to be done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a vaccine on the horizon but coronavirus case rates surging and large parts of the economy still suffering, U.S. policymakers are divided over whether a full-on crisis response remains needed or whether further help should be more narrowly targeted to unemployed families and small business.

Congress itself has been deadlocked over how much more to do, even as millions of unemployed workers face the possible loss of unemployment insurance benefits later this month. While a vaccine may speed the recovery and job creation next year, getting there could be difficult if large numbers of families run out of cash following the flood of government support approved earlier this year.

The issue has caused a rare public split between Mnuchin and Powell that is likely to be fleshed out at the hearing.

Mnuchin has told the Fed to shutter, as of Dec. 31, a series of emergency lending programs for small businesses and local government, and return any unused money to the Treasury.

Powell has said he would comply, but also that he would prefer the programs be extended until the recovery has progressed further and it is clearer how the health crisis will evolve.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee have split along largely partisan lines over the issue. Republicans have agreed with Mnuchin that some of the Fed’s crisis programs could be safely ended at this point and the money put to other uses; Democrats have argued Mnuchin is trying to narrow the choices available to Joe Biden and his nominee to succeed Mnuchin, former Fed chair Janet Yellen.

The hearing is the latest quarterly review of the implementation of the multitrillion-dollar CARES Act approved last spring to bolster the economy from the impact of the pandemic and a wave of business closures that flowed from it.

A House committee will hold a similar hearing on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Tom Brown)

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