COVID relief talks could head into weekend


Congress is barreling toward a rare weekend session as lawmakers race to wrap up a sweeping agreement to fund the government and provide badly needed coronavirus relief.

Leadership is homing in on a deal that would attach roughly $900 billion in coronavirus relief to a $1.4 trillion bill to fund the government until Oct. 1, 2021, in what is the last major piece of legislation Congress needs to pass before it wraps up its work for the year. 

But lawmakers appear poised to drive over Friday night’s funding cliff, when the government will shut down at least temporarily without new legislation. Even if talks wrap by Friday night it’s expected to take days for Congress to pass it. 

“There’s still just a lot of loose ends we’re trying to tie down. ... It’s a little bit of whack of mole, whack it here and something else pops up. There’s a lot of interaction between the moving parts of all this,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). 

Congress had been expected to depart for the year Friday, as lawmakers itch to get out of town for the holidays. 

But leadership is warning rank-and-file members to expect to be marooned in Washington through at least the weekend as talks drag on. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned senators to stay in town to vote on nominations, saying the chamber would be “productive.” 

“The Senate is not going anywhere until we have COVID relief out the door. We're staying right here until COVID relief is out the door. In the meantime, we're going to stay productive while these negotiations are going on, so for the information of all my colleagues, we should expect continuing votes on nominations throughout the weekend,” McConnell said, adding that the negotiations were “close.” 

Though House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CNN on Thursday morning that he wanted to be able to vote on an agreement in the House by Friday’s deadline, his office subsequently released an advisory warning members to “keep their schedules flexible this weekend.” 

Asked if she thought the House could pass a deal on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was noncommittal, telling reporters, “We’ll see.” 

Because coronavirus relief is tied up with government funding, Congress has to either pass a deal or a stopgap spending bill by the end of Friday in order to prevent a brief weekend shutdown

Leadership is eyeing a days-long continuing resolution (CR) to buy themselves more time, though Thune warned that, if leadership doesn't have a larger deal in hand by midnight Friday, a senator might block passage of the stopgap and force a brief funding lapse. 

Part of what appears to be dragging out the talks is a growing recognition that this could be the final coronavirus relief package. Though President-elect Biden and Democrats are characterizing this as “down payment,” Republicans are making it clear they aren’t yet committed to coming back. 

“I am worried about that because we still, I believe, need to do state and local. If Republicans control the Senate that’s going to be hard,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Asked if he thought not including liability in the current agreement would force McConnell back to the table next year, Durbin added: “I have no idea what’s going to bring him back.” 

The hang-ups appear to be centered solely on the coronavirus relief negotiations, not the larger government funding bill. McConnell, earlier Thursday, described the government funding portion as on the “one-yard line” and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters it was done. 

But there remain several sticky issues that still need to be resolved on the long-stalled coronavirus relief, which will be the first aid that Congress has passed since April. Pressure is building on Congress to act as cases surge, hospitals warn about being over capacity and public health experts predict a brutal winter. 

When leadership could get a deal has become a guessing game around the Capitol.

“If I had to put an over and under on it, I would say Sunday morning and if I was going with the over or the under, I’d take the over. I guess that’s probably the best-case scenario,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) added that it was “clear” Congress will be in session over the weekend. 

“There may be a partial lapse. It's clear we're here for the weekend. It's clear that there's some, you know, it seems to me that the issues that remain unresolved are bridgeable. But the question is how long does that take,” he added. 

Negotiators are still haggling over how to structure a second round of stimulus checks amid concerns about the overall cost of the bill. Negotiators are looking at providing roughly $600 checks for individuals who make up to $75,000, but Thune floated that the income ceiling could be lowered. 

That idea drew immediate bipartisan backlash from Democrats including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is pushing for a second round of relief checks that would mirror the $1,200 given to individuals who make up to $75,000 in the March CARES Act. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has teamed up with him, is expected to come to the floor on Friday and try to force a vote on the issue. 

Leadership is still trying to work out funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency, which some Republicans worry could be used as a backdoor for more money for state and local governments, a top Democratic priority. They are also still ironing out language on small business aid and help for hard-hit industries like entertainment venues, a big priority for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is trying to get language included in the bill that would formally turn off federal lending facilities created under the March bill and prevent the incoming Biden administration from effectively restarting it under a different name. 

“It would end these programs exactly as the statute was intended to do,” Toomey said. 

Republicans warned that Toomey’s proposal has wide support within the caucus, but Democrats view it as a non-starter that is slowing down the talks. 

“My concern is that it would sharply limit the ability of any future administration to act in a decisive and timely way to help shore up the economy,” Coons said.

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