Disarray consumes Capitol ahead of critical deadline

Disarray consumes Capitol ahead of critical deadline

Congress is going right up to the midnight shutdown deadline as leaders desperately try to clinch a $900 billion coronavirus aid package and keep the government open during a debilitating pandemic.

After meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday afternoon, Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said the state of play was increasingly tenuous. He said announcing a deal on Friday “would be a triumph of hope over experience” and that even funding the government through a stopgap bill for a couple days could be a “heavy lift.”

“There are lots of individual senators and there are members on both sides who are resistant to the idea of doing another” short-term spending bill, Thune said. “But if there’s good progress on the deal and it looks likely that we’ll be able to announce something soon, hopefully the Christmas spirit will kick in.”

Senate leaders hotlined a two-day spending bill on Friday afternoon, a message to all senators to see if any individual senator will stop it.

The issues hindering Congress are complex and multi-layered. Democrats are blaming GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s insistence on winding down a key Federal Reserve program as the primary impediment to finishing negotiations, but Republicans say Democrats are just looking to send states and cities more funds through a backdoor method.

Conservatives are raising alarm about new spending. And though there’s general agreement on a new round of direct payments of $600, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said unless he sees bill text containing significant direct payments to Americans, he will not allow a short-term funding bill to pass.

“We’ve been in the dark for days on end, we have absolutely no idea what’s actually in this package … so I’m not willing to allow a [spending bill] to go through until I know what’s actually in the package. Direct assistance has got to be in there,” Hawley said. “It’s beginning to reach the point of absurdity. It’s time for leadership to put on the table what they’ve got, it’s time for them to brief members on what they’ve got.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) blocked Hawley from passing a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks, exposing the rift in the GOP about how to handle the pandemic’s sweeping economic impacts.

Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that he’s “even more optimistic now than I was last night that a bipartisan, bicameral framework for a major rescue package is very close at hand,” the finger-pointing at Toomey (R-Pa.) in the frantic negotiations and complaints by Hawley suggest a tough road ahead for congressional leaders.

In another potentially dire sign, Speaker Nancy Pelosi postponed her regular weekly press conference, scheduled for Friday afternoon. Despite the last minute disputes, lawmakers say they’re hopeful a deal is still within reach.

“This is just the normal pain associated with getting to a final solution,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) huddled Friday afternoon to talk about a stopgap bill to keep the government open after midnight. Thune suggested the bill could be for as little as 48 hours.

And lawmakers said they’ve been told to hang around for votes later Friday night, with some still hoping for an 11th-hour breakthrough on a relief package.

“I do think there’s a possibility of votes this evening on not only the CR but I hope that Covid relief bill comes online,” said Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.).

But that hasn’t stopped the blame game from continuing in full force in the meantime.

Senior Democrats said an agreement was “within sight” until Toomey and the GOP made a new ask on the Fed’s emergency lending programs. Toomey has pushed for similar provisions since July, but Democrats argue his latest proposal is more restrictive. Republicans are concerned the emergency lending program will be used to help state and local governments, which they have repeatedly objected to.

The current version of Toomey’s plan would prevent the emergency lending program established by the CARES Act from continuing next year and would also bar the central bank from starting any similar program, according to a draft viewed by POLITICO.

The Federal Reserve has said it would like the emergency programs to continue operating until the economic crisis has ended. Brian Deese, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be National Economic Council director, also released a statement Friday afternoon urging negotiators to keep the Fed program.

“Senate Republicans are now holding up the entire package over this unacceptable provision designed to sabotage the economic recovery under the Biden Administration,” said House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) in a joint statement.

But Toomey pushed back in a statement Friday afternoon, saying in a statement that the language “affects a very narrow universe of lending facilities and is emphatically not a broad overhaul of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority.” The provision, he continued, means “facilities that received CARES Act money expire at the end of the year … cannot be re-started or duplicated without authorization by Congress. Any statement to the contrary is inaccurate.”

The battle was an ominous sign for one of the most pivotal days of Congress this year and pointed increasingly toward a temporary shutdown absent multiple senators blinking.

A shutdown that starts at midnight Friday and drags into the weekend — while embarrassing for Congress — likely won’t have much of an effect. But a shutdown that drags into early next week gets more complicated and could affect services and cause furloughs.

A senior administration official said the Office of Management and Budget is communicating with federal agencies about the possibility of a shutdown at midnight, instructing agencies to hold off on shutdown procedures for now while Congress looks to close out a deal.

While congressional leaders have struck a deal on the broad outlines of a package that would deliver $600 stimulus checks to many individuals and children, $325 billion for small businesses and a $300 weekly unemployment boost, finalizing the deal has proven stubbornly difficult.

Johnson raged against those outlines as he blocked Hawley’s proposal, suggesting conservatives will not appreciate more than $2 trillion in spending being dropped in their laps at the last minute.

“I’m certainly lodging my objection to what’s barreling through here. The train has left the station on the package that’s being negotiated right now that is way too big,” Johnson said on the Senate floor.

McConnell once again vowed that the Senate would not leave without a deal on a spending package that will marry the coronavirus bill with a $1.4 trillion omnibus government funding measure through September. He said Friday that the four leaders have been “working around the clock.”

Regardless of what happens with the immediate government funding obstacle, both chambers of Congress are set to work through the weekend to finish off the lame duck session. It’s a fitting finale for a Congress that opened with the longest government shutdown in history.

In addition to the Fed fight, disaster relief, direct payment eligibility and money for entertainment venues were also among the final sticking points for negotiators. Then there’s the issue of drafting hundreds of pages of legislative text and getting it through the House and the Senate, where one individual senator can slow everything down.

Marianne LeVine, Sarah Ferris, Caitlin Emma and Victoria Guida contributed to this report.

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