House passes massive spending deal, teeing up Senate vote
Bipartisan House lawmakers joined forces Monday night to approve a massive $2.3 trillion federal spending package, combining another round of emergency coronavirus relief with funding to keep the government running for the next nine months.
The package was a bitter pill to swallow for many lawmakers in both parties. Republicans were asked to back a number of social welfare programs while piling roughly $1 trillion more onto the federal debt. Democrats were forced to hold their noses to support a package they deemed much too small to fight the dual crises of health and economy spawned by the surging pandemic.
Still, the legislation — negotiated by the White House and party leaders in both chambers — enjoyed broad bipartisan support on the floor, highlighting the urgency facing Congress to provide another boost of federal stimulus before year’s end as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have spiked around the country.
The package passed the Senate later Monday night in a 92-6 vote just before a scheduled government shutdown at midnight. The White House has indicated that President Trump will sign the legislation into law when it reaches his desk.
The high-stakes votes mark the end of months of combative — and largely fruitless — negotiations between party leaders in Congress and the White House over the size and scope of the next round of coronavirus stimulus.
Those talks, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, broke down just before November’s elections, with the parties still hundreds of billions of dollars apart. Each side blamed the other for the impasse.
The breakthrough agreement, sealed Sunday evening but not unveiled until Monday afternoon, features roughly $900 billion to mitigate the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. It was coupled with an additional $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
House Democratic leaders divided the package into two large pieces for two separate votes Monday night.
The first featured funding for several key agencies — including the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security — and passed by a vote of 327 to 85, with the no votes split virtually evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
The second combined funding for the remaining government agencies along with the COVID-19 relief. The vote on that tranche was 359 to 53, with the opposition coming largely from conservative Republicans who objected to the enormous bump in deficit spending.
Passage of both bills came despite howls from all sides about an opaque process that left lawmakers with just a few hours to read the colossal 5,593-page bill before casting their votes.
“It’s not good enough to hear about what’s in the bill,” tweeted progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Members of Congress need to see & read the bills we are expected to vote on.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, echoed that message, accusing leaders in both parties of ramming the bill through Congress — and putting lobbyists ahead of the public in the process.
“No one will be able to read it all in its entirety,” he tweeted. “Special interests win. Americans lose.”
As members raced to glean the details, leaders in both parties hailed the agreement as a victory for families and businesses suffering under the weight of the coronavirus crisis, which has killed more than 317,000 people in the U.S. alone.
“This agreement isn’t perfect, but it will offer struggling workers, families, and businesses desperately needed support,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who helped draft large chunks of the package.
Still, for Democrats, the $900 billion in coronavirus stimulus is a far cry from both the $3.4 trillion package they had passed in the House in May and the $2.2 trillion proposal they had floated as a final offer to Mnuchin before the elections. And party leaders went out of their way to hitch their endorsements to a promise that they’ll adopt a larger package next year.
“We will do some good with this legislation,” Pelosi said on the House floor. “But we must recognize that more needs to be done to crush the virus, to put more money in the pockets of the American people.”
Pelosi’s disclaimer reflected the Democrats’ hope that, after the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the pandemic, President-elect Joe Biden will tackle the crisis more aggressively when he assumes the White House next month, including efforts to move swiftly on another round of emergency stimulus.
Yet it also reflects the disappointment among Democrats that, after demanding more than $2 trillion in new coronavirus aid for months leading up to November’s elections, they had to settle for a much smaller figure following a drubbing at the polls that stole much of their negotiating leverage in the lame-duck session.
“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough doesn’t know what’s going on in America,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “This is an emergency survival package, and when we come back in January, our No. 1 job will be to fill in the gaps left by the bill.”
The major contours of the agreement mirror those of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, approved by both parties in March, but features lesser spending on key benefits. It includes $600 direct payments to individuals and a $300 weekly boost in unemployment insurance, for instance, both representing half the amount offered in the CARES Act.
It also features more than $300 billion in loans to help small businesses and hundreds of billions more for schools, testing and the distribution of vaccines.
The massive spending package is the last legislative vehicle going out the door this Congress, and lawmakers took full advantage, attaching a host of pet projects to the “Christmas tree” proposal in a perennial Capitol Hill tradition.
That list includes a sweeping energy package championed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), climate proposals designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a bipartisan measure to end surprise medical billing and a provision helping states eradicate the so-called murder hornet. It also includes approvals for the Smithsonian to begin work on two new museums that would commemorate the history of women and Latinos on the National Mall.
Greasing the way for the agreement, both parties agreed to drop one of their most significant initial demands: for Democrats, that meant forgoing hundreds of billions of dollars to help state and local governments pay front-line workers — the “heroes” of their $3.4 trillion HEROES Act. For Republicans, it meant abandoning their insistence on language protecting schools and businesses from lawsuits if students and workers contract the virus.
Like his Democratic counterparts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is vowing to take that fight into next year.
“If there is another coronavirus relief bill after the first of the year, I’m going to insist that liability protection for these universities and health care providers is a part of it,” he told Fox News on Monday.
McConnell and other Senate leaders are hoping to pass the spending package quickly and send it to Trump’s desk. It remains unclear if the process will be stalled in the upper chamber, where an objection from just a single senator can delay the debate for hours or days.
Two senators thought to be weighing such a delay effort — Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — have dropped that threat in recent days. Senate leaders heading into the vote said they’re optimistic the legislation will sail through the chamber before the day’s end, when federal funding is scheduled to expire.
“We’re gonna stay here until we finish tonight,” McConnell said shortly after noon.
Such comments were a comfort to members of a Congress that has failed for months to reach a stimulus agreement and had already blown past three previous deadlines to fund the government. With the end in sight, lawmakers in all camps appeared visibly relieved to be set to vote — and to exit town for what’s left of their holiday break.
“This is as close to a Christmas miracle as you can find in a polarized Washington,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that had drafted the emergency stimulus bill that served as the template for the final package.
“This should be the model for how we come together,” he added. “Not just now but … next year.”