Congress in frantic race to strike stimulus deal
Congressional leaders on Saturday morning were still scrambling to clinch a coronavirus relief deal, just two days before lawmakers face the threat of yet another shutdown.
Both chambers now plan to hold a rare weekend session days before Christmas, with negotiators in both parties saying they aim to reach a final agreement within hours.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and their staff have slowly inched closer to a long-sought stimulus deal, though talks hit a snag Friday over a dispute over the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers.
In his remarks Saturday morning on the Senate floor, McConnell warned against dragging the talks out and urged for a swift agreement that includes more federal unemployment aid, as well as funding for schools, direct stimulus checks for Americans, vaccines, and the Paycheck Protection Program.
“There’s a kind of gravitational pull here in Congress. Unless we are careful any major negotiation can slide into an unending catalogue of disagreements,” McConnell said. “Let’s guard against that.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said negotiators are close to a deal but blamed the Federal Reserve dispute as “the only significant hurdle to completing an agreement.”
“Republicans need to make a decision,” Schumer said. “We’re quickly approaching an all or nothing situation. Everybody needs to make a decision about whether we’re going to pass this much needed relief or not and about 11th hour demands and whether they’re worth holding up the entire bill.”
Senate Republicans are set to talk with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at 1 p.m.
If and when an accord is reached, House and Senate leaders will need to move at lightning speed — with virtually no room for dissent within their parties — to muscle through the massive package before government funding expires midnight Sunday.
Both chambers cleared a two-day stopgap funding bill Friday night, buying more time for a deal that has remained elusive for months.
“I’m still somewhat hopeful we could wrap this up if the House moves quickly and we gotta take it up and do it tomorrow night,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “But I would say it’s also very possible that it rolls into Monday.”
The Senate will hold its first set of votes at 12 p.m. on an unrelated Trump nomination, where lawmakers hope to learn details of the still-evolving package, which is expected to include roughly $900 billion in small business loans, unemployment aid and direct payments for most Americans.
House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, will brief their members on a conference call at noon. With no deal in hand by Friday night, Hoyer told members that the House would not vote until 1 p.m. on Sunday, at the earliest.
Pressure, meanwhile, is mounting on leaders of both parties as the U.S. again surpasses its daily record of new cases and deaths continue to surge.
And even while the first vaccines have arrived on Capitol Hill in recent days, fears spread of a new outbreak as some House members and reporters tested positive for the virus.
“I’m wondering why we can’t get a bill that we’re all reading about in the paper done, and it could’ve been passed in July since everybody agrees with everything it in, pretty much,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, said in an interview Friday.
“But hopefully we’re in visual sight of the finish line here,” Cole said. “It’s Christmas, I’m determined to be optimistic.”
The recovery package will be merged on the floor with a must-pass, $1.4 trillion government funding bill in one of the biggest legislative packages of the 116th Congress. The final measure is also expected to include a slew of year-end tax and health extenders, as well as long-awaited legislation to address “surprise” medical bills.
Rank-and-file lawmakers have complained they’ve been largely kept in the dark on the talks, and expect to have little time to review the deal before it comes for a vote.
“The fact that these are just negotiations that happen, backdoor, and we’re hearing secondhand what’s in this, should be unacceptable,” a frustrated Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview Friday, just after lawmakers left the Capitol without a deal.
“We’ll get the final text, they’ll call a vote 30 minutes after the text is released, and you’re frantically trying to sift through,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It’s terrible.”