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Little time, big differences threaten lame-duck spending deals

Long-stalled coronavirus relief bill on potential collision course with stopgap funding deadline

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants a coronavirus aid deal as soon as possible.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants a coronavirus aid deal as soon as possible. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Pandemic-related aid and delayed appropriations for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 appear set to merge into a sweeping multitrillion-dollar negotiation as lawmakers approach the Dec. 11 expiration of stopgap funds for federal agencies.

Congressional leaders have sought to keep the two politically charged issues on separate tracks for months, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that emergency funding will be added to the must-pass spending bill absent a separate coronavirus relief deal.

“In the lame duck we’ll have to pass stimulus or we’ll have to put provisions in the appropriations bill to keep government open,” Pelosi said Oct. 6 during an event hosted by the 92nd Street Y in New York.

Since then, Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have made little progress, remaining stuck on dozens of complicated issues ranging from national standards for virus testing to liability protections to refundable tax credits for low-income workers.

Meanwhile, GOP apprehension has grown along with the topline funding level the White House is willing to accept — nearly $2 trillion — and Republicans fear Mnuchin will make too many policy concessions to seal a deal.

For the moment, President Donald Trump expects an agreement after the elections, despite what may be an overly optimistic electoral scenario: “After the election we’ll get the best stimulus package you’ve ever seen because I think we’ll take back the House because of [Pelosi],” Trump said Tuesday.

Trump remains a wild card, with Democrats concerned how he would react if he doesn’t win reelection. “He throws fits almost every day as it is; it’d be hard to tell the difference,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week.

The possibility of post-election tumult and the stopgap spending law expiring on Dec. 11, could incentivize lawmakers to add coronavirus-related aid to the appropriations bills.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, however, has told members to keep their schedules flexible during December in the event negotiators need more time to reach agreement. “But I’m going to press very, very hard to complete our business both on COVID-19 and on an omnibus or a [continuing resolution],” Hoyer said Tuesday.

Other pandemic aid provisions, such as an extra 13 weeks of federal unemployment insurance for individuals who have exhausted their regular state benefits and a suspension of airline industry taxes, expire Dec. 31.

The Paycheck Protection Program for forgivable loans to small businesses has been tapped out since August. And Pelosi has said she wants to get quick relief into the hands of people likely to start missing their rent payments due next month.

Behind the curve

Reaching a compromise on $1.4 trillion allocated for typical expenses in the fiscal 2021 appropriations bills was already going to be challenging before Pelosi mentioned weaving in relief aid.

The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t released a single bill following a dispute about whether Democrats could offer amendments on COVID-19 aid and social justice issues.

The House Appropriations Committee approved its 12 bills along party-line votes, and the House passed 10 of those in July despite White House veto threats. The Trump administration rejected dozens of policy provisions, ranging from restrictions on funds for military installations named for Confederate officers to a prohibition on transferring funds to border wall construction.

The administration also opposes House Democrats’ addition of nearly $250 billion in emergency spending, mostly for pandemic response efforts.

If party leaders and the White House can’t reach agreement on at least another stopgap measure before Dec. 11, a partial government shutdown would begin. That would be more disruptive than the 35-day shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 that began over a border wall funding dispute.

Agencies navigating the pandemic would be forced to send employees home by the thousands while those deemed “exempt” would continue working without pay. The trajectory for vaccine approval and distribution would likely experience delays.

And the handful of departments that were spared two years ago because they had full-year spending bills enacted would not be excluded this time. Those include departments like Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, not to mention the operations of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month he believes negotiators can reach agreement on a COVID-19 bill without threatening government operations. “I think we need another rescue package. If we don’t get it before the election, we’ll get it afterwards,” he said Oct. 15 in Kentucky.

Different places

McConnell and Trump are in different places on what a relief package should look like. Trump wants Republicans to “go big,” while McConnell says his conference is unlikely to support a package that comes close the $1.9 trillion the White House is currently offering.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters earlier this month that GOP leadership would have a hard time finding the minimum 13 GOP senators willing to vote for such a large bill.

If a standalone aid package can’t pass the Senate, that would add even more pressure to tack COVID-19 relief provisions onto a must-pass spending bill. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., isn’t ruling that prospect in or out.

“We’d have to see what the challenges are. We’ve put a lot of money out there for testing, for research. A lot of that money hasn’t been spent yet,” Shelby said on Oct. 20. “I’m open to listen … but it depends on what it is.”

Democrats and Republicans would be forced to make difficult choices if government funding and relief talks merge.

House GOP lawmakers were strongly opposed to the inclusion of nearly $250 billion in emergency funds related to the pandemic and economic downturn in the July spending bills, saying it violated the spirit of a two-year spending caps agreement.

Those bills would provide $75 billion for transportation and low-income housing programs, $61 billion for broadband access in underserved areas, over $24 billion for health care agencies and more.

House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., told CQ Roll Call that funding for airlines and to ensure vaccine distribution runs smoothly are items he would consider. But he rebuked Democrats for determining emergency spending levels on their own.

“They went ahead and agreed to numbers that nobody in the Senate agreed to and the president of the United States hadn’t agreed to,” Cole said. “I’m certainly willing to look at some things, but what they did was basically paper over their differences with funny money.”

Meanwhile, House Democrats on Oct. 1 passed a $2.4 trillion coronavirus aid package that has served as their party’s primary negotiating baseline.

Nearly half of that figure is discretionary spending within appropriators’ purview. That includes $436 billion for cash-strapped state and local governments; $249 billion for health care agencies, including funds for vaccine development and distribution, testing and contact tracing, hospitals and child care services; and $225 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities and an assortment of programs ranging from rental and food assistance to public transit agencies.

It’s also possible there won’t be much appetite for a large-scale negotiation in the lame duck if defeated lawmakers wish to spend as little time as possible in Washington.

G. William Hoagland, a former top Senate GOP budget aide who is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, doesn’t expect the spending bills to be completed this year.

“I think that’s over the top. It’s too much too quickly,” he said. Instead, he expects they’ll add some coronavirus relief funds to another stopgap spending bill, dealing with the rest next Congress.

“Something in my gut tells me it’s a continuing resolution with an adjustment for COVID,” Hoagland said.

For now, Pelosi remains adamant that she wants a coronavirus relief deal this year.

“We want it as soon as possible,” she said Oct. 18 on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “I don’t want to have to be sweeping up after … dumpings of this elephant as we go into a new presidency in a few short months.”

David Lerman, Lindsey McPherson and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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