Pelosi eyes combining Covid aid with mammoth spending deal
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she wants to attach a coronavirus relief bill to a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package that would avert a government shutdown later this month, raising the prospects of long-stalled stimulus relief finally being signed into law.
The California Democrat said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed with her about combining the annual spending measures with coronavirus relief during their conversation Thursday, the first time in weeks the two leaders have discussed moving a relief bill.
“That would be a hope, because that is the vehicle leaving the station,” Pelosi said of attaching pandemic aid to a must-pass fiscal 2021 funding package during her weekly press conference. “We would want a big, strong vote.”
Pelosi said the $908 billion proposal released this week by a centrist group of Senate and House members helped restart the stimulus talks, which fell apart just before the election after months of dragging on with little real movement.
“There is momentum — there is momentum with the action that the senators and House members in a bipartisan way have taken,” Pelosi said Friday, in the latest sign that negotiators are closing in on a deal. “The tone of our conversations is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done.”
President-elect Joe Biden on Friday said he’s “encouraged” by the $908 billion proposal, framing it as the type of bipartisan work that he hopes to foster as president. He cautioned that “any package passed in the lame duck session is not going to be enough overall.”
But hurdles remain. Government funding runs out in just one week, and there are still a sizable number of issues impeding an agreement on a massive spending package that would increase agency budgets for the rest of the fiscal year.
The sheer number of outstanding items at such a late stage makes it increasingly likely that congressional negotiators will require a brief stopgap spending bill to complete their work before leaving for the holidays. Such a decision could be made early next week if lawmakers fail to make significant progress over the weekend.
Pelosi demurred when asked about the possibility of a short-term stopgap to buy more time for talks, and dismissed the need for a longer term continuing resolution that would extend current government funding into early next year.
“We will take the time that we need,” Pelosi said, while acknowledging that a number of issues remain, including some outside of appropriators’ jurisdiction.
“Don’t worry about a date,” she added.
While appropriators in both chambers remain optimistic that they’ll finish their work before the holidays, Republicans and Democrats are still swapping offers and arguing over details, kicking some of the most difficult items up to congressional leaders.
For example, a House Democratic aide close to the talks said Republicans want to scrub any mentions of Covid-19 from the omnibus package entirely. Earlier this year, House Democrats added coronavirus relief to their slate of fiscal 2021 appropriations bills, while Senate Republicans have insisted that pandemic aid remain totally separate from annual appropriations measures.
Republicans are also objecting to funding for research on reducing racial and ethnic inequalities in the justice system, in addition to language that would require the Capitol Police to report on policies and procedures on eliminating unconscious bias and racial profiling during training, the Democratic aide said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing Democrats of holding up omnibus talks by insisting on the removal of two Interior-Environment policy riders that have been included in annual spending bills for years. The provisions involve protections for the greater sage-grouse, in addition to a provision related to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass.
“Dredging these up right now is beyond counterproductive,” a GOP aide familiar with the talks said Thursday night.
Funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall also remains a perennial sticking point — Senate Republicans have proposed $2 billion for fiscal 2021, which began on Oct. 1. House Democrats have proposed no extra cash.
Lawmakers have also disagreed on detention beds for detained migrants in recent days, although Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — the top Senate Democrat who oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security — said Thursday that issue may get solved without the help of leadership.
Also in question is whether the White House will ultimately support a package that classifies billions of dollars in veterans’ health care spending as “emergency” spending outside of strict budget limits. Both House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby are moving forward with their negotiations assuming that’s the case, since the White House has previously signed off on such an arrangement.
Pelosi on Friday also said that whatever coronavirus relief they include in the government funding bill will not be the last time Congress addresses the ongoing pandemic, which continues to devastate the U.S., killing more than 275,000 Americans and causing a sharp downturn in the economy. The U.S. saw the deadliest day ever on Thursday, with Covid-19 fatalities exceeding 2,700.
“President-elect Biden has said that this package would be, just at best, just a start. And that’s how we see it as well,” Pelosi said.
The speaker also defended her decision to hold out for months, demanding a larger deal in the ballpark of $2 trillion or more, only to agree to negotiate this smaller package now. McConnell, similarly, refused to come off his much smaller baseline over the summer — pushing a $500 billion package — resulting in a standoff between congressional leaders.
“That was not a mistake, it was a decision,” Pelosi told reporters, saying the dynamics have significantly shifted since the election of Biden and the quicker than expected vaccine development. “That is a total game changer — a new president and a vaccine.”
With cautious optimism about the prospect of passing some fiscal stimulus to buoy the American economy during a bleak pandemic winter, lawmakers remain hopeful that Congress will pull it together before leaving Washington, despite lingering omnibus headaches.
“You know this place — turns on a dime,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who was elected by the Democratic caucus on Thursday as the next Appropriations chair.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this story.