Congress faces late-year logjam
Congress is facing a legislative pileup as lawmakers struggle to finalize their work for the year.
The House and Senate are juggling government funding negotiations and a must-pass defense bill, along with a renewed push for coronavirus relief as cases climb across the country and states and cities are reinstating lockdown measures.
They’ve also had somewhat unexpected hurdles, such as President Trump threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over a tech fight.
And then there’s the coronavirus itself. Two more members in the House have tested positive this week, underscoring the need to finish business promptly so that lawmakers and aides can hopefully get home for the holidays safely.
The House is scheduled to leave town by Dec. 11, while the Senate could remain in town for an additional week.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he wants to stick by that schedule, even while acknowledging that his own predictions are “very optimistic” compared to Congress’s normal wait-until-the-last-minute mindset.
“I want to send members home, if possible, no later than the 11th. The reason for that is that if need be, they’ll get the time to quarantine before Christmas and to reintegrate with their families if they need to quarantine for any reason,” Hoyer told reporters during a conference call.
There is plenty of skepticism that such a timetable can be met given the differences that remain.
“There would have to be some remarkable developments. I didn’t see any indication of them this week,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) predicted that Congress will be in session for “several” additional weeks.
The most pressing deadline for Congress is to pass a measure that keeps the government open after Dec. 11, when it would shut down without such legislation.
Hoyer said he spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and that the two leaders were in agreement that “it would be optimal if in fact we get to agreement by the end of this weekend, have that agreement put on paper and memorialized so that we could consider it as early as Wednesday or Thursday of next week.”
Negotiators had hoped they would be able to get a deal this week, which would allow for the agreement to clear the House and Senate before the deadline.
But Shelby predicted it was unlikely they would be able to pass a deal by Dec. 9 and increasingly likely they will need a continuing resolution (CR), a short-term measure that would keep the government funded at existing spending levels.
“Will we do it by the ninth? I’d like to but probably not. There’s some challenges that have got to be dealt with,” Shelby said about a mammoth government funding deal. “That’s ticking away fast now.”
Shelby added that a CR was “where we’re headed at the moment,” but declined to say how long it would be for. Lawmakers could pass a days- or weeklong stopgap bill to give themselves more time to finalize a deal or, if a deal is unlikely to happen, they could use a CR to fund the government at fiscal 2020 levels until next year.
The growing chances for a CR come as the omnibus negotiations have bogged down in perennial issues, including a fight over money for Veterans Affairs health care, the border wall and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.
“There’s a lot of things that haven’t been resolved. I think we’ll get it done, but you never know around here. All of you have seen bad days,” Shelby said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) put the chances of getting a mammoth spending bill done at “better than 50-50.”
“It’s like a week or maybe two weeks before we’re done so lots of things can go wrong,” he added.
Lawmakers are still waiting to see if they will be able to get a deal on coronavirus relief that could ride on the government funding deal. Blunt said he didn’t think coronavirus relief gets done if there is only a CR.
In a possible sign of progress, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed the $908 billion bipartisan group’s proposal as a starting place for any negotiations.
“Of course, we and others will offer improvements, but the need to act is immediate and we believe that with good-faith negotiations we could come to an agreement,” they said in a joint statement.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the bipartisan group is hoping to have legislative text for its proposal finalized by Monday. Though McConnell didn’t respond to a question about the comments from Pelosi and Schumer, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), his No. 2, called the remarks “progress” and floated that the proposal and a separate measure from McConnell could be merged.
Meanwhile, the fight over the NDAA doesn’t have a hard deadline, but lawmakers view the defense policy bill as must-pass legislation that has cleared Congress for the past 59 years in a row.
Trump dropped his objection to language that will require the names of Confederate-named bases and military installations be changed within three years. But he put the bill’s future back in peril by threatening to veto it if it doesn’t include language repealing Section 230, a provision that shields tech companies from liability for third-party content posted on their platforms.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) confirmed that a Section 230 repeal won’t be in the final version of the NDAA and that he conveyed that message to Trump. Inhofe said he does not know if Trump will ultimately sign the NDAA.
Several Republicans say they share the president’s frustration with Section 230 but don’t believe the NDAA is the right place to wage the fight.
“All I know is that the vote for a defense authorization bill I expect will be a big one here,” Thune said. “I would hope that we could get that signed into law and not have a lot of drama around that.”
Cristina Marcos contributed.