The Hill’s Morning Report – Congress passes year-end COVID-19 relief, omnibus deal
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Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 317,684; Tuesday, 319,466.
Lawmakers passed a mammoth $2.3 trillion year-end bill to finally deliver coronavirus relief and fund the government, putting an end to months of roller-coaster negotiations and turning the legislative page over until 2021.
The bill, which includes $900 billion in COVID-19 relief and a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending agreement, passed the House on Monday night and the Senate shortly after, and now heads to President Trump’s desk. The House passed the bill by a 327 to 85 margin (The Hill). The Senate approved it, 92-6.
“None of us think this legislation is perfect, but a big bipartisan majority of us recognize the incredible amount of good it will do when we send it to the president’s desk. The American people have waited long enough. I’m glad for our country that we’re now moving ahead together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the late night vote.
In order to give Congress enough time to print and deliver the massive 5,593-page agreement, lawmakers also passed a seven-day stopgap spending bill as a backstop to ensure the government doesn’t shut down. The bill was needed after half of Monday was consumed by a computer glitch that forced the House to delay passage until after 9 p.m. Funding for the government was set to expire at midnight after lawmakers passed three short-term continuing resolutions in recent weeks (The Hill).
“Unfortunately, it’s a bad time to have a computer glitch,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said early on Monday.
As The Hill’s Jordain Carney writes, the deal includes funding for a number of bipartisan items, including another round of small-business aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, $600-per-person direct checks — down from $1,200 in the CARES Act earlier this year — and monies for schools, coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution.
According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Americans are expected to start receiving their stimulus checks — which will go to individuals who make up to $75,000 — next week. The timetable for the second round is faster than the one after the CARES Act. As Naomi Jagoda notes, the first round of payments was enacted on March 27, and taxpayers whose direct deposit information was already on file with the IRS started receiving their payments in mid-April.
The Associated Press: Congress approves $900 billion COVID relief bill, sending to Trump.
The Washington Post: Senate passes bill with $900 billion in new emergency economic relief.
With the fight finally complete on a fifth coronavirus-related package, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are setting their sights on the new year and the next package. Despite its passage, some Democrats criticized the size of the package passed overnight, given that the House passed the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act in May and a $2.2 trillion bill in early October (The Hill).
In a letter to the House Democratic Caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reiterated her push for any future bill to include monies for state and local governments — an item that did not make it into the latest package.
“Now that we have completed the coronavirus emergency relief and omnibus package, we must focus on the work to be done in the new Congress,” Pelosi said. “We advance this bill today as a first step. We have new hope which springs from the vaccine and from the commitment President-elect Biden has to following science.”
“We are ready for the next step,” she added.
On the GOP side, McConnell told Fox News he will “insist” that any future package includes a liability shield to protect against coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“I think liability relief is really important,” McConnell told host Dana Perino. “And 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” (The Hill).
The New York Times: A dinner, a deal and moonshine: How the stimulus came together.
The Hill: Relief bill’s passage sets off scramble to declare victory, assign blame.
Reuters: “Better than nothing”: The U.S. $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus helps but underwhelms.
The Hill: Massive relief bill leaves some industries happy, others disappointed.
While the vast majority of the attention is fixated on the stimulus deal that had eluded lawmakers since the summer, the $1.3 trillion spending deal that funds the government through October will set key policies across the government. As The Hill’s Niv Elis writes, The package includes a $1.4 trillion omnibus bill based on the 2019 spending deal, which consists of $740.5 billion in defense spending and $664.5 billion for domestic programs.
The omnibus includes a broader set of policy issues, such as transportation, agriculture, health, homeland security and foreign operations. The bill will also enact a 3 percent pay raise for the military and a 1 percent pay raise for the civilian federal workforce.
Newsday: New York to get $54 billion in pandemic relief, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says.
CNBC: Stock futures mixed as Congress passes COVID-19 relief bill.
Unfortunately for Congress, the work for 2020 is not over yet as McConnell announced early this morning that the Senate will reconvene on Dec. 29 in order to vote to override a presidential veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. The GOP leader said that he struck a deal with Schumer for the chamber to return for the rare post-Christmas session where he said they will “process” a veto override if it’s passed by the House (The Hill).
The Hill: McConnell vows to hold votes on Biden’s Cabinet picks.
LEADING THE DAY
CORONAVIRUS: Biden became the latest high-profile political figure to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday and urged Americans to follow suit in the coming months as part of the mass vaccination push across the country.
Appearing at ChristianaCare Hospital in Wilmington, Del., Biden received the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech and used the opportunity to thank front-line health workers and scientists. He also gave a surprising shoutout to the Trump administration for Operation Warp Speed, the program aimed at speeding the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it’s available to take the vaccine,” Biden, wearing a black face mask, said after receiving the vaccine, noting that incoming first lady Jill Biden also received her first dose on Monday. “There’s nothing to worry about” (The Hill).
“I think the administration deserves some credit getting this off the ground with Operation Warp Speed,” Biden said. “This gives us great hope” (NBC News).
Gerald F. Seib, The Wall Street Journal: Biden talks up bipartisanship; he has three good reasons.
On Friday, Vice President Pence also received the vaccine in public. The push will continue in the coming days as Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is set to receive his first dose of the vaccine today.
Fauci, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, and front-line health workers will receive doses of the Moderna vaccine at an event at the NIH this morning. Azar announced the plans on his Twitter feed (Politico).
On the congressional side, hordes of lawmakers have gotten the first dose of the vaccine since the Office of the Attending Physician recommended last week that they receive it for continuity of government purposes, with many tweeting photos of or livestreaming. However, as The Hill’s Cristina Marcos notes, there is a small but growing number of members who are declining early access to the vaccine, including Reps. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rep.-elect Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). All in this category say they will refuse a vaccine before all front-line health care workers and seniors get inoculated.
CNBC: White House task force kept airport COVID-19 screeners in place despite known risk of infection, sources say.
> British COVID strain: Fauci on Monday said that he would not advise the U.S. to adopt new restrictions on travel to and from the United Kingdom as the British deal with a new variant of the coronavirus and other countries shut off travel to the country.
Fauci told CNN that while U.S. officials have to “keep an eye on it,” now is not the time to overreact despite reports that the new strain is more contagious than the virus the U.S. and the rest of the world have grappled with over the past year.
“Follow it carefully, but don’t overreact to it,” Fauci said.
In recent days, dozens of countries have cut off travel to Great Britain, including France, which barred the entry of trucks from its neighbor to the north for 48 hours while the strain is better understood.
According to experts, the vaccines and remedies for COVID-19 are also expected to work on the new strain (The Associated Press).
The Hill: Apple closes California stores amid rising COVID-19 cases.
The Hill: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) limits public gatherings.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
POLITICS/NEW ADMINISTRATION: Attorney General William Barr rebuked the president on Monday, saying that there is no reason to appoint a special counsel to probe the tax investigation into Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son, or Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
Speaking at a year-end press conference at the Justice Department, Barr said that the situation involving Hunter Biden is being handled “appropriately.”
“I think to the extent that there’s an investigation I think that it’s being handled responsibly and professionally currently within the department,” said Barr, whose last day as attorney general is Wednesday. “To this point, I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel and I have no plan to do so before I leave.”
The investigation is currently being run out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware and is said to relate to Hunter Biden’s foreign work. The younger Biden acknowledged the existence of the investigation earlier this month, saying it is focused on his tax affairs.
Barr also said he saw no need to tap a special counsel to investigate claims of fraud in the presidential election. Trump is said to have discussed the possibility of naming Sidney Powell, a proponent of election-related conspiracy theories, as a special counsel to investigate claims of fraud.
The outgoing AG added that there is “no basis” for a federal seizure of voting machines, an idea that has been floated by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.
“If I thought a special counsel at this stage was the right tool and was appropriate I would name one, but I haven’t and I’m not going to,” Barr added (The Hill).
CNBC: Barr breaks with Trump, says SolarWinds hack “certainly appears to be the Russians.”
Barr’s comments came as Trump and his allies huddled at the White House in advance of the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 when lawmakers will certify the Electoral College (The Hill). Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who is leading the charge to challenge the results, told Politico that dozens of GOP lawmakers are ready to object to the certification of the results, including multiple Senate Republicans despite warnings against doing so by McConnell.
“Big meeting today with @realDonaldTrump, @VP, the President’s legal team, @freedomcaucus and other Members of Congress,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) tweeted. “I will lead an objection to Georgia’s electors on Jan 6. The courts refuse to hear the President’s legal case. We’re going to make sure the People can!”
The effort is nonetheless expected to be a futile effort, according to other top Republicans. Thune told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the efforts would “go down like a shot dog” (The Hill).
CNN: House conservatives strategize with Trump and Pence in push to challenge Biden’s win.
Axios: Trump trashes McConnell to fellow Republicans.
Daily Beast: Giuliani distances Trump from Sidney Powell as she visits White House again.
The Hill: Trump eyes unusual move on government accountability before Biden takes office.
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WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets Thursday at 9 a.m.
The Senate convenes on Thursday at 10 a.m. for a pro forma session.
The president has no public events scheduled.
The vice president will deliver remarks at Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., at noon.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will receive the Presidential Daily Brief and meet with transition advisers. Biden will also deliver remarks in the afternoon.
Hill.TV’s “Rising” program features news and interviews at http://thehill.com/hilltv or on YouTube at 10:30 a.m. EST at Rising on YouTube.
➔ DISTRICT WATCH: The year-end spending bill and an executive order are set to give the nation’s capital a minor face lift. The $1.4 trillion omnibus package passed last night greenlighted the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino and Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. The development comes after separate bills for the two museums were blocked earlier this month on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, Trump on Monday signed a new executive action saying that classical architecture will be the preferred style for new federal buildings in the future instead of modern designs. According to the order, Trump mandated that buildings must be “beautiful,” adding that Greco-Roman architecture “should be encouraged instead of discouraged (The New York Times).
➔ ENVIRONMENT: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday tightened standards for how much lead can remain as dust on surfaces such as floors and window sills after removal activities — a move environmentalists argue does not go far enough. The agency argued that its move will better protect children from dangerous exposure to lead, which can damage the brain and nervous system and slow growth and development. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that the change is “overdue” (The Hill).
➔ TECH: Apple is plowing ahead with plans to create a passenger vehicle to be sold in four years, which would include self-driving technology and an overhaul of the car battery. Apple’s effort, titled “Project Titan,” has been up-and-down since 2014 when it launched design plans of a potential vehicle (Reuters).
And finally … Two housekeeping issues.
First, some good news: The winter solstice was on Monday, meaning that the least amount of daylight is behind us and that the days will only get longer from here on out. And for those looking well into the future, March 14 marks the start of daylight saving time.
Lastly, this is the final edition of The Morning Report for 2020 as Alexis and I take some time to rest up and get our ducks in a row after a crazy year. However, we’d like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy holiday season and thank you once again for your constant readership.
Be well, and we will be back in your inbox on Jan. 4.
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