Congress faces ‘fork in the road’ on stimulus

Congress faces ‘fork in the road’ on stimulus

Congress is preparing for the possibility of a short government shutdown as leaders attempt to wrap up a nearly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package ahead of a Friday deadline.

As of Thursday afternoon, Republicans and Democrats were still sparring over tens of billions of dollars in government spending. Disagreements remained over who is eligible for stimulus checks, how to spend money for health care, disaster relief funds and winding down the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending program.

And though Senate GOP leaders had hoped to do a brief stopgap spending bill to provide Congress more time, Democrats don’t want a continuing resolution that would take pressure off negotiators to come up with a deal by Friday night. Leadership would require total cooperation at this late date to quickly pass such a bill. And the Senate might not get it.

“I know people who are going to object to that, that want to keep pressure on the process until we get a deal. It would take consent, obviously, to a do a short-term [spending bill],” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “Government shutdowns are never good. If it’s for a very short amount of time on a weekend hopefully it’s not going to be something that would be all that harmful.”

Though negotiators said they were close, a short-term resolution would be needed to avoid a government shutdown on Friday at midnight and keep Congress working through the weekend to finish its work for the year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said working on Saturday and Sunday was now “highly likely.”

“Each side faces a fork in the road. Do we want to lapse into politics as usual and let negotiations lose steam? Do we want to haggle and spar like this was an ordinary political exercise?” said McConnell. “Or on the other hand, after months of action, do we want to move swiftly and … seal the deal?”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added that “while many, if not all, of the difficult topics are behind us, a few final issues must be hammered out. We’re very close to an agreement but the details really matter.”

Top aides on Thursday were discussing a bill to keep the government funded until Sunday to allow for further talks and drafting of the rescue package. It could easily take a couple days for the House and Senate to finish crafting the legislation –which is expected to be a massive $1.4 trillion omnibus coupled with around $900 billion in coronavirus relief — and pass it.

The bipartisan group of senators that kicked off negotiations held a call Thursday afternoon and agreed to urge Democratic and Republican leaders to drop the issues related to FEMA and the Federal Reserve.

Congressional leaders are optimistic about cutting a deal and ending the lame duck session within days, so there could be little room to maneuver without another short-term spending bill. But congressional leaders have not publicly announced a deal or legislative text even as they remain optimistic about the state of play.

“We made some progress this morning, waiting to hear back,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters as she entered the Capitol Thursday morning.

Notably, McConnell and Schumer did not immediately take to the floor on Thursday morning as lawmakers continued trading offers.

“That the leaders didn’t open the session tells me they must be doing something this morning. I’m hoping it’s on Covid,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “Everybody has a strong appetite to pass this, pass the omnibus and go home.”

The House and Senate would both need to approve the year-end funding bill and the coronavirus package, and in the Senate any one member can delay passage.

The coronavirus package will include a new round of roughly $600 stimulus checks, beefed up unemployment benefits of $300 a week, about $325 billion for small businesses and money for transportation, vaccine distribution and schools, according to lawmakers and aides. Leaders are hopeful it will be married with the omnibus spending bill funding the government through September and have held off on releasing the text as the continue to haggle over coronavirus provisions.

Pelosi and Schumer held a call late Wednesday night with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over the ongoing talks.

Republicans are currently pushing back against several key Democratic requests in the rescue package. Schumer and Pelosi are asking for as much as $30 billion for governors to spend on health-care related concerns, which they say will help with vaccine distribution, while Republicans are terming that an unnecessary slush fund. Democrats are also pressing for as much as $17 billion to entertainment venues and for more money for public transit.

Senior GOP Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has previously backed relief for concert venues, said they’re trying to figure out how other similar institutions like zoos, museums and community theaters can get relief without taking away the pot of money for the entertainment industry.

“I’m not opposed to [that] as long as it doesn’t take the money that is so important to these venues that are been crushed by the virus, so we’re trying to work out a fair formula. That’s what’s hanging it up,” Cornyn told reporters Thursday.

There are also lingering questions on additional food assistance, eviction moratoriums and the total amount of small business funding. And GOP negotiators also remain opposed to a $1 billion pot of money for FEMA to deal with Covid-related emergencies. That same pot of money passed the House easily earlier this year.

Democrats, meanwhile, are still fighting Republicans’ desire to wind down the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending program established in the CARES Act. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is pushing to close the door entirely on the ability of Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary, to restart the Fed’s programs for small and midsized businesses, as well as state and local governments.

Even with all the outstanding issues, lawmakers in both parties say the time has long passed to provide another round of coronavirus aid — the first significant relief package to move through Congress since April.

“We didn’t know how long it was gonna last. Most of us would never have thought this would be the 17th of December and we would be working on yet another Covid package,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“We thought that CARES was really going to be it until it wasn’t. And so, I mean that’s the difference, is the calendar, the passage of time, and the passing of lives.”

Marianne LeVine and Victoria Guida contributed to this report.

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