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Coronavirus relief bill, omnibus spending on tap, McConnell says

Government funding deadline is Dec. 11, after which a shutdown could ensue if no agreement

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell departs from a Senate Republican luncheon in Washington on Oct. 26, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell departs from a Senate Republican luncheon in Washington on Oct. 26, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he wants to pass a COVID-19 aid measure and all 12 outstanding fiscal 2021 appropriations bills before the end of the year.

The Kentucky Republican said he didn’t yet know if he would be the “defensive coordinator or the offensive coordinator” in the Senate come January. But regardless of the election outcome, he hopes to wrap up two substantial fiscal packages.

“I think we need to do it, and I think we need to do it before the end of the year,” McConnell said of coronavirus relief. “I think that’s job one when we get back, hopefully with a more cooperative situation than we had.”

McConnell spoke to reporters in his home state, after he successfully defended his seat against a well-funded Democratic challenger, former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath.

He said it was his goal to wrap up the spending bills for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, rather than kick things over into the new calendar year. “And we also need to fund the government, and [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] and I agree that we ought to do an omnibus appropriation bill and do it in December, no matter who wins the election,” McConnell said.

Pelosi has also said she’s hoping to wrap up another large pandemic relief bill during the lame-duck session as well as the annual appropriations bills. It’s not clear whether the White House is on board, however. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told CNBC on Wednesday that another continuing resolution was likely.

And the parties remain far apart on what a coronavirus aid package should look like.

McConnell is skeptical of the $1.9 trillion spending level that Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were discussing before the elections. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., last month said it’ll be difficult to find the 13 GOP senators needed to move such a package across the Senate floor.

McConnell instead put legislation on the Senate floor that would have provided about $500 billion in additional aid. Democrats blocked that bill from advancing past a procedural vote.

Additional aid for state and local governments is one of the areas where Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree. But McConnell said Wednesday that more funding for state and local governments is a “possibility.”

“If we do that again, we need to look at the formula and make sure there’s a real need there and make sure we’re not basically allowing state and local governments to cover up or cover over preexisting problems, like pension problems and other problems that they’ve created for themselves,” McConnell said. “We will have to reach some kind of agreement, but it’s not something that my side is very fond of because it’s hard to figure out who really needs it and who doesn’t.”

Additional funding for COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccines could also be part of a bipartisan rescue package, McConnell said. Kudlow told CNBC that another funding round for Paycheck Protection Program forgivable small-business loans, as well as renewing lapsed federal unemployment benefits, were White House priorities in the talks.

Pelosi and Mnuchin stopped their near-daily negotiating calls over the past week. The two even had a public spat, releasing letters they sent each other criticizing their respective negotiating tactics.

McConnell has been getting regular briefings from Mnuchin throughout the negotiations, but he has not participated in one-on-one talks with Pelosi on the legislation.

Shutdown deadline

The three will also have a difficult time completing the dozen outstanding spending bills before a stopgap measure expires on Dec. 11, after which a partial government shutdown would ensue if there’s no funding deal.

The House Appropriations Committee approved all of its bills in July, but the Senate panel has yet to release any of its bills for fiscal 2021.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., have been able to work out bills several times during the Trump administration, but several new issues could add new dynamics to the conference talks.

Democrats added numerous policy riders to their spending bills that elicited White House veto threats, such as a ban on military construction funds going to military installations named for Confederate officers. President Donald Trump has dug in his heels on that issue, tweeting several times that he would oppose any legislation that would force the Defense Department to rename those locations.

After the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, House Democrats passed legislation that would overhaul policing methods and withhold funds from local police departments for violating bans on tactics like chokeholds and no-knock warrants. Democrats added provisions from that measure to their Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, which drew a White House veto threat.

Another provision that the Trump administration isn’t happy with is language in the House Energy-Water bill that would prevent the use of federal funds to prepare or hold “any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

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