Congress passes bill to avert shutdown as coronavirus talks drag into weekend

Congress passed a days-long stopgap bill on Friday, hours before the government was scheduled to shut down, as negotiations over another coronavirus stimulus bill stretched into the weekend.

The legislation, which passed the Senate in a voice vote, extends the government funding deadline from Dec. 18 to the end of Dec. 20, giving negotiators more time to finish a sweeping deal to provide year-end coronavirus relief and fund the government through Oct. 1.

The House already passed the two-day continuing resolution (CR), with the Senate soon following suit and sending it to President Trump for a signature. He signed the stopgap bill just after 10 p.m., according to the White House, averting a a temporary, middle-of-the-night lapse in government funding. 

“I think all of our colleagues understand our present situation. Both sides of the aisle are firmly committed to finalizing another pandemic rescue package. … But alas we are not there yet. Given that, our urgent task is to pass a stopgap funding measure,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

It wasn’t clear throughout Friday that the Senate would be able to pass the stopgap bill, with several senators being noncommittal. Because the Senate went down to the deadline, they needed agreement from every senator in order to allow the CR to be voted on and passed Friday night.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) initially interrupted passage of the bill on Friday night as though to object but ultimately did not.

“Majority Leader McConnell and I do not agree on much but as I understand it we are in agreement on at least one point and that is that the Senate cannot go home until a COVID emergency relief bill is passed,” Sanders said.

Lawmakers approved the stopgap bill with leaders still haggling over a deal that would tie roughly $900 billion in coronavirus aid to a $1.4 trillion bill to fund the government. 

Leaders had indicated Tuesday night that they were closing in on an agreement, after months of stalemate, only for the talks to drag on for days over a myriad of last-minute hurdles that Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, compared to “whack-a-mole.”

“There’s some, always last-minute stuff that pops up, but it’s coming together. It’s just taking time but it’s slower and, you know, I think we have to assume that even when there’s a deal announced that by the time it gets written up and processed we’re going to be pushing through the weekend,” Thune told reporters Friday.

Negotiators had hoped to be able to announce a deal on an overarching package by Friday night’s deadline, but have yet to resolve several key sticking points. 

Tensions flared Friday over an effort by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to include language in the bill codifying the end of an emergency federal lending facility and preventing the incoming Biden administration from restarting it. 

Democrats view the demand as a non-starter but the push has wide support among Republicans. 

“Legal experts, senior banking officials, and former Republican and Democratic regulatory officials all agree: the proposal to pull back on the Fed’s 13(3) authority would set a terrible precedent, hurt the Fed’s independence, and weaken its ability to respond quickly to future crises,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). 

A Democratic aide characterized the Toomey language as a “purely political, unrelated provision to tie Biden’s hands and risk throwing the economy into a tailspin.”

Toomey fired back in a statement, saying, “The language Senate Republicans are advocating for affects a very narrow universe of lending facilities and is emphatically not a broad overhaul of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority.” 

In addition to the Federal Reserve lending hold-up, negotiators are still trying to work out funding to help out entertainment venues, amid a push to expand that funding to zoos and other tourism-driven businesses. 

Negotiators are also haggling over the size of the stimulus checks, who should be eligible to receive them, and whether to add a $90 billion pot of money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that some Republicans worry is a back door for getting in state and local money. 

“That was I think viewed as another way to circumvent the state and local. I mean, it seems to me like we had a semblance of a deal on state and local and liability and now our Democratic friends are finding creative ways to try to get the money through other means,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). 

Congress’s work on the mammoth package is poised to get kicked into next week even if leadership is able to soon get a deal.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) adjourned the House until noon Sunday, making Sunday afternoon the earliest the House could vote on a package if leadership has reached an agreement and finished drafting by then. 

“They haven’t reached a deal yet. They just won’t be ready. And once they make a deal, it’ll take some time to put the paper together,” Hoyer said Friday about the schedule. “So I don’t want members waiting, twiddling their thumbs while we’re putting paper together. I hope there’s a deal tonight or tomorrow.” 

Thune added that he had thought Sunday was the best-case scenario for a House vote but indicated that as talks drag on that timeline is slipping further into next week and closer to the Christmas holiday. 

“That would be a triumph of hope over experience … to think we might get a deal yet today. I think that’d be a best case scenario,” Thune said. “I was thinking best case scenario of getting something voted on was going probably to be Sunday but it may be later than that.”

UPdated: Dec. 19 at 6:20 a.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders coronavirus relief negotiations Donald Trump government funding Government shutdowns John Cornyn John Thune Mark Warner Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Steny Hoyer

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