Shutdown politics set to collide with coronavirus aid

The odds are rising that any deal on a fifth coronavirus relief package will be tied to legislation to prevent a government shutdown.

After weeks of stalemated talks, the timeline for the two fights have all but merged: The House is set to leave until after the election by Oct. 2, giving lawmakers only a matter of weeks to get a deal on another coronavirus bill. And government agencies cannot run when the next fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 without new funding from Congress. 

Tying the two together would set up a high-stakes election-year battle, combining the threat of a shutdown with help for roughly 30 million Americans out of work since the spread of the coronavirus that has rattled the economy and killed more than 180,000 people in the United States. 

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And the deadline would be a month before an election both sides cast as the most important in generations. 

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) supports linking the two issues but warned that unnamed people want "chaos" because it would help them politically. 

"If people want chaos, and I think there’s some people who do — I’m not ascribing that point of view to anyone. I just think there are some people who are motivated by chaos. They think it helps them politically. Then there’s nothing we can put together to make them happy," he said, asked if including coronavirus aid made it harder to pass the funding bill. 

Congress is likely to need a continuing resolution (CR) to avert a shutdown. Such a bill would keep funding at existing spending levels. The measure could serve as a vehicle for expanded unemployment benefits and the extension of a small-business loan program and an evictions moratorium, which have all expired due to congressional inaction. 

White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election White House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid MORE has accused House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? MORE (D-Calif.) of holding out on a coronavirus deal to try to use the looming government funding deadline as leverage. Pelosi has rejected the notion of waiting until the end of September to advance the COVID-19 legislation, warning that “people will die,” but has not explicitly ruled out tying it to a funding bill. 

Behind the scenes, House Democrats say there’s little strategic advantage in combining the issues. 

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“I don't think you want to introduce the idea of a government shutdown into COVID talks,” said a Democratic House aide. “To think it is a good idea, you have to think that adding more complicated issues to an already fraught negotiation makes it easier to get an agreement.”

A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerCentrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline MORE (D-Md.) said he “believes these bills should be kept separate, and he believes that swift action is needed to both fund the government and provide COVID relief for American families.”

Both sides appear ready to blame the other if they barrel past the spending deadline. 

“House Democrats have demonstrated that we are committed to keeping the government open by passing 10 of the 12 annual appropriations bills, a stark contrast with Senate Republicans, who have not even begun their appropriations process,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOvernight Health Care: CDC pulls revised guidance on coronavirus | Government watchdog finds supply shortages are harming US response | As virus pummels US, Europe sees its own spike Trump HHS official faces firestorm after attacks on scientists Ahead of a coronavirus vaccine, Mexico's drug pricing to have far-reaching impacts on Americans MORE (D-Conn.). 

Meadows, asked if he thought Trump would be blamed for a shutdown, noted that there would be “all kinds of blame to go around.” 

“The president doesn't want to shut it down. I don't want to shut it down,” Meadows said during a Politico live event. “We know how these negotiations go. ... Everybody looks for the leverage, the next cliff.”

The government’s inability to strike a deal on a new relief package is threatening to hamper any economic recovery, putting pressure on Congress to act. The vast majority of small businesses that took out special, forgivable loans say they have spent most of the money, and nearly half that said they would apply for a second round cannot do so without new legislation.

The $600 in extra weekly unemployment benefits that expired in late July left 27 million Americans with less money in their pockets. Trump’s executive order to funnel $300 in weekly benefits from Federal Emergency Management Agency cash to the unemployed has stalled, with just five states sending out benefits to limited recipients, despite Labor Department predictions that the average state would provide the benefits by late August.

The idea of linking the CR and coronavirus aid has been circulating around Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans, for weeks. 

The strategy, according to supporters, would let them achieve two goals at once: getting some coronavirus aid across the finish line after an entrenched stalemate and preventing an election-year shutdown that would inject a fresh dose of chaos into an already unpredictable year. 

The same Republican senators who are likely to vote against a CR are in the group of roughly 20 that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' MORE (R-Ky.) has estimated would vote against any additional coronavirus relief, letting them vote against one larger bill instead of highlighting GOP divisions in two separate votes. 

A GOP lawmaker said it appeared that coronavirus relief and the government bill are on separate tracks for now. And some GOP senators, while not ruling out the idea, have warned that combining the two issues could make the bill “unwieldy.” 

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But Republicans have discussed it as they’ve worked to finalize a second GOP-only coronavirus bill. The forthcoming package is expected to be around $500 billion — half of the initial $1 trillion offer — and include Postal Service funding, more money for testing and schools, and a federal unemployment benefit.  

McConnell declined to say earlier this month if he would support putting coronavirus relief aid onto a CR but asserted that he wasn’t worried about a shutdown. 

“I’m still hoping we’ll have some kind of bipartisan agreement here sometime in the coming weeks,” McConnell told reporters. 

But Meadows, known for his ability to blow up deals, appeared open to folding them together to neutralize the threat of a shutdown, which would be the third under the Trump administration.  

“I think that if we do a COVID deal right now we ought to just do a continuing resolution as part of that solution so we take a shutdown off the table,” Meadows said.