This week: Lawmakers return with coronavirus talks stalemated, funding deadline looming
© Greg Nash/Bonnie Cash

The Senate is returning to Washington, D.C., with an end-of-the-month government funding deadline looming and talks over a fifth coronavirus package stalemated. 

Senators are back at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon for the first time since early August. The House is out until next week, after extending their August recess until Sept. 14. 

They have a matter of weeks to wrap up their work before they are expected to leave town again until after the November election, including preventing a government shutdown and trying to revive talks on another coronavirus relief package. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Senate Republicans, after weeks of daily phone calls, are trying to finalize a smaller, second coronavirus bill that is expected to include a weekly federal unemployment payment, another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding and more money for testing and schools, as well as liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoBiden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden expresses optimism on bipartisanship; Cheney ousted MORE (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership, and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE have said they hope Republicans will be able to unveil, and potentially try to move, the GOP-only package this week. 

“We have a focused, targeted solution that we hope that the House would pass and the House would agree to,” Barrasso said, adding that it was the “goal” to vote on the bill this week. 

Mnuchin, during an interview with Fox News on Sunday, said the “expectation is we'll move forward with that next week.” 

After weeks of talks between congressional Democratic leadership, Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Stephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here MORE went nowhere, GOP senators are eager to vote on a bill — even if it’s guaranteed to fall short. 

Forcing the vote, they hope, will help provide cover for vulnerable Senate GOP incumbents who are trying to hold on to their seats while the virus has killed nearly 190,000 Americans, as well as try to put pressure on Democrats to reopen negotiations. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans want a bill they can get 51 votes for, a level of unity that has been elusive for the caucus in the negotiations over another relief package. The initial $1.1 trillion package unveiled by Senate Republicans last month was expected to lose up to 20 votes from the 53-member caucus. And Republicans scuttled a plan to force a vote last month related to PPP amid GOP infighting. 

“If we can reach consensus on a package I am for putting it on the floor. And allowing senators to be senators,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.). 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE (R-Ky.) hasn’t said when he will try to move a second bill — and negotiations over a potential package continued over the weekend. He’s already lined up votes on several nominations starting on Tuesday evening, delaying a vote on any potential coronavirus package likely until Thursday unless senators can work out an agreement to speed things up. 

The GOP effort comes after lawmakers left Washington last month with no sign of a deal on another coronavirus bill. Congressional Democrats and the White House have barely talked since then and made no visible progress toward breaking the stalemate. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.), in a letter to the Democratic caucus, dismissed the so-called skinny GOP bill. The GOP bill, if Republicans put it up for a vote, is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to pass. 

“Republicans may call their proposal 'skinny,' but it would be more appropriate to call it 'emaciated.' Their proposal appears to be completely inadequate and, by every measure, fails to meet the needs of the American people,” Schumer wrote. 

The sticking points on the negotiations are largely the same as they were when Congress left D.C.: Republicans have proposed a $1.1 trillion package, while Democrats have lined up behind the $3.4 trillion House-passed bill. 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Hillicon Valley: Colonial pipeline is back online, but concerns remain | Uber, Lyft struggle with driver supply | Apple cuts controversial hire Ocasio-Cortez on Taylor Greene: 'These are the kinds of people that I threw out of bars all the time' MORE (D-Calif.) and Schumer offered to drop $1 trillion off their price tag if Republicans added the same amount to their offer, putting the final agreement in the $2 trillion range. But Republicans and the White House have rejected that. 

They also have deep disagreements on major policy points including help for state and local governments, unemployment insurance and McConnell’s red line of liability protections. 

“Well, I think, you know, in my discussions with the Speaker, where we're really stuck is both on certain policy issues but more about — more importantly, on the top line. The Speaker has refused to sit down and negotiate unless we agree to something like a two and a half trillion-dollar deal in advance,” Mnuchin said during the interview with Fox News. 

The stalemate on the coronavirus aid comes as lawmakers will soon need to pass another government funding bill. Without passing either each of the 12 fiscal 2021 spending bills, or a short-term continuing resolution (CR), the government will shut down on Oct. 1. 

Lawmakers are expected to pass a CR, which will continue fiscal 2020 funding levels, to avert a pre-election shutdown. That bill is expected to keep the government funded until after the election, though they haven’t agreed on an end date. 

In a potential boon to avoiding a shutdown fight, Mnuchin and Pelosi have an informal agreement to pass a “clean” CR, meaning it won’t have policy provisions viewed as politically controversial by one side. 

That likely means that a CR and a coronavirus agreement would remain separate — something Democrats have signaled that they want. 

A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWhat's a party caucus chair worth? House fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (D-Md.) told The Hill late last month that he “believes these bills should be kept separate.” 

Nominations

McConnell has teed up a slate of nominations to kick-start the Senate’s abbreviated work week. 

The Senate will take a procedural vote on Tuesday evening on Brett Ludwig’s nomination to be a district judge, setting up a final vote on the nomination for Wednesday. 

The Senate is also expected to vote this week on the nominations of Christy Wiegand, Hala Jarbou, Thomas Cullen and Diane Gujarati, each to be district judges.