Lawmakers face hurdles to COVID relief deal
Negotiators in the House and Senate are racing to finish a massive end-of-year deal to fund the government and provide help to workers and families struggling through a worsening pandemic.
Last-minute sticking points are threatening to push the talks into the weekend or next week and may scuttle an agreement all together despite momentum for a deal that has been building since last week.
Congress is expected to pass a one-week stopgap measure as soon as Wednesday to keep the government funded through Dec. 18. Without such action, the government could shut down on Saturday.
“The time is now the problem on all of this,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership.
Leadership hopes to stick long-stalled coronavirus relief onto the mammoth funding bill. They’re juggling that with votes on a defense bill President Trump has threatened to veto and a long-shot effort to block a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates.
It’s not just a desire to get home for Christmas that makes members want to reach a deal soon.
Rising coronavirus case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths, while underscoring the need for a relief measure, are also creating risks for those gathered at the Capitol.
“Not getting a deal is not an option,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We have got to come together and have some give and take. But not getting a deal done is not on the table from my perspective.”
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) say they want the big deal, but differences on aid to local governments and McConnell’s demand for broad liability protections are among the outstanding issues to be resolved.
McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor on Monday, urged Democrats to cut a deal on coronavirus on areas where there is agreement, including vaccine funding and more small-business aid.
“We have seen some hopeful signs of engagement from our Democratic colleagues, but we have no reason to think the underlying disagreements about policy are going to evaporate overnight. … We just need both sides to finally do what members of Congress do when they’re serious … drop the all-or-nothing tactics,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fired back that “our efforts to pass another emergency relief bill through the Senate have been stalled until now for one reason — the Republican leader has refused to compromise.”
Congress is facing pressure for a few reasons. Some states and cities are reinstating lockdown measures as cases rise, which would further hurt the economy, and a slew of programs created under the March CARES Act are set to expire in a matter of weeks.
While late-in-the-game squabbling over major legislation is practically an annual holiday tradition at the Capitol, lawmakers are even more eager to get out of Washington given the COVID-19 anxieties.
Of the 35 members of the House and Senate who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March — excluding several who had presumed cases or tested positive for antibodies — about 40 percent have been in the last month alone.
Plenty of hurdles remain. On government funding, leadership needs to iron out disagreements on perennial sticking points like funding for the border wall and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds, as well as environmental riders including federal protections for the sage grouse.
Neither the White House nor McConnell have yet thrown their support behind a $908 billion proposal on coronavirus relief from a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers. But in a significant boost, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Monday that Trump would “likely” sign it, though he said it depends on the details.
The group introduced a framework for their idea last week and are expected to have text of the legislation early this week but are still trying to finalize language on two key points: funding for state and local governments and protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is part of the negotiations on liability protections, indicated on Monday evening that they weren’t close to a deal but were continuing to talk.
The proposal includes, among other provisions, $160 billion for states and cities — a top priority for Democrats — $180 billion for unemployment insurance and $288 billion for more small business assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program.
Democrats view more help for hard-hit states and cities as a must, while McConnell has pointed to liability protections as his red line, making it unlikely that any deal would include one but not the other.
McConnell last week circulated a GOP-only proposal, similar to the roughly $500 billion bill twice blocked by Democrats, saying he had drafted it as part of talks with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about what Trump would be willing to sign.
But supporters of the bipartisan measure note their bill, not McConnell’s, is the one that could potentially garner enough support to make it to Trump’s desk. McConnell met with members of the group late last week.
“We fully acknowledge that parts of this agreement — as well as items not included — will be difficult pills for some senators in both parties to swallow,” Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, warning that leaving for the year without a deal would be a “self-inflicted wound from which our country would take years to recover.”
But the proposal is drawing backlash from both sides.
Some GOP senators are dug in against more money for state and local government, while some members of both parties, ranging from progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), are pushing to include a second round of stimulus checks that were distributed under the CARES Act as part of any year-end relief agreement.
Hawley, viewed as a potential 2024 contender, urged Trump during a phone call over the weekend to veto any bill that doesn’t include more stimulus checks.
“I’m continuing to be flummoxed as to why there aren’t any direct payments. Everybody supported this in March. It’s the most useful, helpful and frankly popular aspect,” Hawley said. “So I told him that and … I encouraged him to veto it.”