Short-term punt seen likely for spending bills, coronavirus aid

Despite hopeful talk on both sides of the aisle, the odds are against congressional leaders reaching agreement on a COVID-19 relief package and omnibus appropriations bill to wrap up this year’s unfinished business in the lame-duck session.

The mostly likely outcome is another stopgap spending bill, perhaps into late February or early March, with some limited bipartisan COVID-19 aid attached. That’s the view of Capitol Hill officials in both parties and other legislative experts.

“I think I’d peg the odds as pretty low” on getting everything done before January, according to Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the right-leaning American Action Forum. “They’re just not on the same page on COVID, and I don’t see much incentive to agree to an omni.”

Gray said he could see “maybe some additional funding for testing or public health in a [continuing resolution], but I don’t see a compromise on a full-year omni or COVID deal in the lame duck.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say they want to pass a pandemic bill and omnibus, but the differences over the size and content of a COVID-19 package that held up agreement before the election are still there.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump, who's been focused on contesting the election results, came off the sidelines to prod lawmakers into reaching a coronavirus relief deal. "Congress must now do a Covid Relief Bill. Needs Democrats support," Trump tweeted. "Make it big and focused. Get it done!"

And on Sunday President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that “we need action during the lame duck” on a COVID-19 bill that would include aid to individuals and state and local governments. “So, our message to Speaker Pelosi is keep doing what you're doing,” Klain said. “To the Republicans, let's get this done.”

'Roll of the dice'

Complicating the situation is that time is running out, with the current stopgap spending law set to expire on Dec. 11.

It’s unclear whether Trump would sign an omnibus, or whether he and Senate Republicans can get on the same page on the scope of pandemic relief. Unless the appropriations package is to his liking, Trump may be inclined to insist on another continuing resolution, which would generally extend agencies’ spending authority at current rates.

“It’s a roll of the dice” on where Trump will come down on spending bills and COVID-19 aid, according to a House Republican lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

This lawmaker expects there to be broad support among Republicans for a “clean” stopgap funding bill to replace the current CR, but he was more circumspect about bipartisan support for a massive spending bill with partisan provisions.

Before voters went to the polls on Nov. 3, Trump said he expected passage of a coronavirus relief package after the elections. But in the same breath he anticipated Republicans would take control of the House, which did not happen.

One GOP aide said for there to be any chance of a deal, Biden will have to persuade Democrats to be more malleable in the negotiations. Some Democrats agree. But if Biden does get involved, it is likely to be through staff and with a light footprint, said a Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“We’ve been talking and they know my views,” Biden said of Democratic leaders when asked if he would be active in the negotiations.

The odds of reaching agreement on an omnibus are probably better than for pandemic aid, but still steep.

“I think there’s a better chance of an omnibus than a COVID deal,” said Tom Kahn, a former House Budget Committee Democratic staff director. “I just think Democrats and Biden want to get this old business, 2021 funding, off the plate. We want to start fresh working on 2022 spending.”

Republicans also could benefit by negotiating the bills when the White House is still in GOP hands.

'90 percent together'

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., sounded an optimistic note, saying he and Pelosi had a “good conversation” Wednesday about trying to pass an omnibus and stimulus. Shelby said he and Pelosi are “probably 90 percent together on” the 12 fiscal 2021 appropriations bills he posted last week.

But in order to reach agreement, House Democrats would likely have to drop much of the $233 billion in pandemic emergency spending added to their bills, withdraw various funding restrictions on Trump administration priorities and allow $1 billion or more to be allocated for a southern border wall. Shelby’s bills do not include any emergency pandemic funds, but some virus relief would probably be included in a compromise.

Still, Republicans would not necessarily be upset if appropriations were kicked into next year, delaying Biden’s other priorities. And Pelosi pointedly told reporters Friday that Democrats’ leverage will be enhanced once Biden is in the Oval Office.

“Whether you’re in the minority or majority, if the president is of your party, you have more power,” Pelosi said. “And I think that that’s what Mitch McConnell is going to find out now, that whether he’s in the majority or the minority, not having Donald Trump in the White House is going to change his leverage and that dynamic.”

A large-scale COVID-19 package is almost sure to wait until Biden takes over as president.

Republicans and Democrats are no closer to a compromise than they were before the election, when there was some incentive for all involved to get an agreement. McConnell said Thursday he supports another package, but one similar to a $519 billion bill Senate Republicans proposed last month rather than “something dramatically larger.”

Pelosi, who has pushed for a $2 trillion-plus package, doubled down at a postelection press conference, saying a “smaller package” envisioned by Republicans “does not appeal to me at all because they still have not agreed to crush the virus.”

And Biden would probably prefer to have a hand in shaping the next major pandemic package. “Biden has said his job No. 1 is COVID and I think he would be happy to have a White House signing ceremony in late January or February on a COVID package that Trump couldn’t get done,” Kahn said.

Given all the political calculating going on, it’s easy to see everything punted into the new calendar year. Nevertheless, there is intense pressure to enact relief now given record U.S. coronavirus cases and a shaky economic recovery that’s vulnerable to renewed lockdowns.

Industry groups representing small businesses, hotels and restaurants for months have been clamoring for relief, particularly with colder weather looming that's likely to curb outdoor dining.

And citing Health and Human Services Department data, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that with key programs like increased federal jobless benefits expired, as many as 10 million more people, including four million children, could be pushed into poverty by year’s end.

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