This week: Congress braces for chaotic finish
Congress is set for a chaotic week with end-of-year deadlines, a raging public health crisis and a burgeoning, long-shot effort to overturn the election all sharing the spotlight on Capitol Hill.
Congress has just a matter of days to wrap up its work for the year as lawmakers eye getting out of town until January — though an unresolved funding fight or a veto of a mammoth defense bill could drive the 2020 session into overtime.
Under a one-week continuing resolution (CR) passed last week, lawmakers now have until the end of Friday to either get a deal on an omnibus funding bill, which would keep the government open until Oct. 1, or kick the can for a third time this year with a stopgap measure.
Appropriators signaled late last week that they were on the cusp of a $1.4 trillion government funding deal with progress being made on the last big sticking point: whether $12.5 billion for a veterans health care program would have to be counted under the spending caps set by a two-year budget deal.
“I think the appropriations language is coming together. And if they could get an agreement about how to handle the, you know, the veterans piece of that — and it sounds like they may be there,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added that once they resolved the issue he thought they would “see open field” and that it was the final sticking point “barring something parachuting in.”
But as of Sunday night two areas had cropped up: A push to get a surprise medical bills deal in the funding bill and a looming question of what, if any, coronavirus relief Congress will be able to pass before the end of the year.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke on Sunday for roughly half an hour, according to the Democratic leader’s office.
“On the omnibus, the Speaker raised the recent bipartisan, bicameral agreement on surprise billing and the bipartisan support for its inclusion in the omnibus agreement, which would yield significant savings to pay for critical health initiatives,” Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi, said in a string of tweets about the call.
Four congressional committees announced Friday that they had struck a deal on surprise medical billing legislation that would protect patients from receiving medical bills for thousands of dollars after routine occurrences like going to the emergency room and getting care from a doctor that is outside the patient’s insurance network.
What to do about coronavirus relief is trickier.
A bipartisan group is expected to unveil legislative text for their $908 billion proposal on Monday. The measure is expected to be split into two packages, effectively roping off the most controversial parts of negotiations for more help.
The plan, confirmed by a source familiar with the talks, will include a $160 billion proposal that ties together the two most controversial elements: more money for state and local governments and protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits.
The second proposal will total $748 billion and include ideas that garner broader support, including another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding for small businesses, extended unemployment benefits and more money for vaccine distribution, testing and schools.
Though the second piece is likely to get broad support within the bipartisan, bicameral group, it’s unclear how many will endorse the $160 billion piece.
It will be up to leadership if any of the group’s proposal makes it into the year-end deal, but splintering off state and local and liability could make it easier to pass a small deal amid a surge in cases, new restrictions and warning signs from hospitals as public health experts warn of a brutal winter.
Democrats view state and local funding as a top priority, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said including protections against lawsuits is a “red line.”
Pelosi addressed both issues during her call with Mnuchin, calling state and local aid “even more important” with states saying they are billions short even as they are responsible for distributing and administering a coronavirus vaccine.
But McConnell has opened the door to dropping both issues in an effort to get some form of aid out before the end of the year. Even as cases have climbed in recent months, Congress hasn’t passed coronavirus relief since April.
“We know what that common ground looks like. A new round of the Paycheck Protection Program so hard-hit small businesses can keep paying their people. The necessary investments in distribution to get lifesaving vaccines out to our people. An extension of some unemployment programs that will otherwise expire in just a matter of days,” McConnell said on the floor last week.
In a curveball to this week’s floor drama, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are demanding a vote on their proposal to send out a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks. The two let last week’s one-week stopgap bill clear, but have warned they view this week as a leverage point.
Sanders said he was “fairly comfortable” that he would get a vote because “the alternative is we’re going to spend Christmas here.”
With the Electoral College set to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s win on Monday, efforts to overturn the results of the election are shifting to Congress.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said earlier this month that he would challenge the election results next month, when Congress formally counts and certifies the Electoral College.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that Brooks, backed by other Trump allies in the House, is eyeing challenging the results in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin — five states won by Biden during the November election.
To force a vote on his objections, Brooks will need to win over a GOP senator to also object to the same state’s electors.
Brooks has briefed the Senate GOP Steering Committee, and some of Trump’s allies, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), haven’t ruled out joining Brooks’s objection.
The GOP plan has no real chance of overturning the results of the November election, but it will put a spotlight on GOP divisions about how to handle the election fight and likely further undermine the country’s democratic underpinnings.
Top Senate Republicans have distanced themselves from the effort and pledged that it will ultimately fall short.
“Nobody likes to lose but we have to respect the judgment of the American people, the voters, so I don’t support, I don’t endorse, I don’t really like just making a show just to make a show,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, told The Hill.
The push by Brooks is the latest tension point among Republicans in the wake of the election.
Some Senate Republicans distanced themselves from 126 House Republicans supporting a lawsuit from Texas that sought to overturn election results in four key states. Though Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) agreed to argue the case before the Supreme Court — if the Senate hadn’t shot it down — no GOP senators signed a similar brief and some said last week that there was no effort underway to establish a similar petition.
The Electoral College certification will also revive a question of whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and most other Republican lawmakers in Congress will acknowledge Biden as president-elect.
Though several called for Trump to begin the transition process, or backed Biden getting intelligence briefings, only a handful have directly acknowledged him as the president-elect, in part because many argued Dec. 14, the Electoral College vote, would grant him that title.
Johnson is holding a hearing this week on “election irregularities” — a decision that has earned him bipartisan backlash. Trump’s team has had dozens of legal setbacks as he’s tried to challenge the results, and election experts have dismissed claims of widespread fraud.
But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Johnson to cancel the hearing and for GOP leadership to intervene if he wouldn’t. Johnson has said he will not cancel the hearing.
“[To] use a Senate Committee as a platform to spread misinformation about our own elections – it’s beyond the pale,” Schumer said. “Chairman Johnson should call off this ridiculous charade of a Senate hearing, immediately. And if he won’t, Leader McConnell should intervene to ensure that the Committee does not indulge such quackery and conspiracy theories. “
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the panel, added that, “I don’t see the purpose of a hearing other than to stir up controversy.”
Trump’s veto threat of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is hanging over Congress’s efforts to wrap up its work for the year.
The House and Senate both passed the mammoth defense bill last week with veto-proof margins — 355-78 and 84-13, respectively.
Republicans are hoping that large vote margins will help convince Trump to back down. Senate GOP leadership said back-channeling was already underway to stress the importance of the bill and drive home that it has a broad base of support on Capitol Hill.
The bill was delivered to the White House on Friday, meaning Trump has until Dec. 23 to veto the measure or sign it into law.
So far Trump is showing no signs of backing down.
“THE BIGGEST WINNER OF OUR NEW DEFENSE BILL IS CHINA!. I WILL VETO!” he tweeted in all caps over the weekend.
Trump has taken issue with two pieces of the bill in particular: A plan to change the names of Confederate-named bases and military installations within three years, and the fact that it doesn’t reform Section 230, a legal shield for tech companies.
The bill also rebuffs Trump’s strategy to pull back troops from Afghanistan and Germany.
McConnell is moving to fill the vacancy created on the Seventh Circuit by Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
McConnell has teed up an initial vote on Thomas Kirsch’s nomination to be a judge for the Seventh Circuit for Monday evening, setting up a final vote on his nomination as soon as Tuesday.
Kirsch was nominated in October, weeks after Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court.