Road Ahead: Coronavirus aid, spending deadline loom, but slow start expected for Congress’ return

House to focus on committee work, Senate on judicial nominees

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer says Republicans would be moving in the “wrong direction” if they were to vote on an even more limited version of their coronavirus aid bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer says Republicans would be moving in the “wrong direction” if they were to vote on an even more limited version of their coronavirus aid bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2020 at 5:00am

Congress returns, partially, to Washington this week, with a slow acceleration following the August recess. Coronavirus relief negotiations and the government funding deadline are top of mind, along with police overhaul legislation, but no action is expected on any of these issues until later in the month.

The House will focus on committee business, holding off on floor action until next week.

The Senate is expected back in session Tuesday afternoon, and while there’s less clarity on when a vote will take place on a possible coronavirus relief package, the chamber will take up an ongoing priority for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — judicial confirmations.

The Senate is scheduled to take a 5:30 p.m. cloture vote on the nomination of Brett Ludwig to be U.S. district court judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. McConnell teed up four more judges on Aug. 13, before the chamber officially broke for recess.

The Senate’s return begins a mad dash to find a compromise on high-profile issues that include a possible coronavirus aid package and avoiding a government shutdown.

In a letter to the Senate Democratic Conference on Thursday, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Republicans would be moving in the “wrong direction” if they were to vote on an even more limited version of their $1 trillion aid bill.

“Their proposal appears to be completely inadequate and, by every measure, fails to meet the needs of the American people,” the New York Democrat said.

Schumer, reminding his conference of debate on the earlier roughly $2 trillion March aid package, said “it was our unity against a partisan, Republican first draft that allowed for significant improvements to be made.”

That bill passed with broad bipartisan support.

As negotiations continue on a new bill, with pandemic-related U.S. deaths averaging around 1,000 a day, the unity hasn’t lasted.

“I can tell you I do think we do need to reach agreement, and it’s harder to do now because we’re so much closer to the election,” McConnell said last week.

The Kentucky Republican has remained away from the negotiating table where Democratic leaders and the White House have not yet been able to hammer out a deal. He said the “cooperative spirit” that helped the March aid package get almost unanimous support had “dissipated.”

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Talks between the Trump administration and Speaker Nancy Pelosi on further coronavirus relief are similarly stalled. Last week, Pelosi spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the phone, but the two sides remain far apart.

Mnuchin told a House panel last week he would not support the Democrats' $2.2 trillion offer — down from the $3.4 trillion House Democrats sought in the package they passed on a party-line vote in May.

He said there was broad agreement on small-business loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program, school aid, tax rebate checks, and unemployment benefits, but added, “We may be differing on amounts.”

The House is not in session this week — a change from the original schedule for the year — and is instead categorizing it as a committee work week. The chamber has previously used such weeks during the pandemic to advance legislation out of committees in preparation for floor consideration, and two committees are taking the time this week to conduct markups.

[Marijuana, discrimination bills on House’s September agenda, CR expected to avert shutdown]

The Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a virtual markup Wednesday on 38 bills. Chairman Frank Pallone said in a statement that the bills include health measures to “expand access to mental health services, combat the opioid epidemic and improve access to Medicare by strengthening enrollment protections.”

“We will also be marking up legislation that will improve consumer product safety, and critically, fight ... fraud and scams preying on the COVID-19 crisis,” the New Jersey Democrat added. “The Committee will also address legislation to enhance diversity in the broadcast industry for both owners and employees. Finally, we will consider legislation that will expand access to sustainable energy and reform the Department of Energy’s management and personnel practices.”

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to markup nine bills Wednesday, including measures to update the Trademark Act of 1946, authorize grants for community-based nonprofits to operate reentry centers for individuals released from prison and provide permanent resident status to certain immigrants.

Among the hearings taking place this week is a Wednesday session of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis examining how to ensure “a free, fair and safe election” during the pandemic.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials is holding a hearing Wednesday on Amtrak’s response to COVID-19. The hearing comes a week after Amtrak announced it plans to furlough more than 2,000 employees.

Illinois Democrat Daniel Lipinski, who chairs the subcommittee, called the announcement “disappointing and unacceptable” in a statement criticizing Amtrak for not asking Congress for additional aid to help keep workers on its payroll after the company received nearly $1 billion in the March relief package for that purpose. Lipinski said he plans to use Wednesday’s hearing to raise these issues with Amtrak CEO William Flynn, as well as hear from affected workers and passengers.

“These workers deserve better from Amtrak leadership,” Lipinski said. “Congress needs to act quickly to prevent furloughs and avoid long-distance service cuts.”

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will hold a legislative hearing Thursday on 31 bills, including 10 measures designed to help prevent veteran suicides. The bills, according to the committee, would “expand lethal means safety training, improve diagnosis and treatment for serious mental illness, ensure emergency room personnel institute safety plans and follow ups for at-risk veterans, streamline VA’s collaboration with outside researchers,” among other provisions.

On Thursday the Financial Services Committee will debate the need to provide more aid to states and territories during the pandemic and the Oversight and Reform Committee will discuss the controversy over the administration’s plan to end the census count at the end of the month.

Fiscal year deadline, policing deal

Underlying all action this month will be negotiations to keep the government funded beyond the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

A continuing resolution is almost a certainty since the Senate has not taken up a single fiscal 2021 spending bill. But just how long a stopgap funding package should last is still up for debate. Congress could punt spending decisions to a lame-duck session after the election or put forth a longer CR that runs into 2021.

Putting additional pressure on the talks, the $25 billion in aid that commercial passenger airlines received in payroll support as part of the March relief law also expires Sept. 30.

[Trump administration requests funds for agencies hurt by the pandemic]

The must-pass spending bill will be a sought-after vehicle for other legislative priorities that lawmakers will try to attach, including a renewed effort to reconcile the House and Senate policing bills that aim to tackle systemic racism in law enforcement.

A group of House Democrats are working with South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott on crafting a smaller version of the House-passed policing legislation that Scott can introduce and the Senate can advance as a vehicle to go to conference with the House, Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee said on a press call last week.

“I can see the Justice in Policing Act being attached to a must-pass bill of appropriations and funding the government,” the Texas Democrat said.

It’s been more than two months since the House passed its sweeping bill, named for George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. Senate Republicans had their own, much narrower proposal on policing, but without Democratic support, it was blocked on the floor.

Scott, the lone Black Republican senator, took the lead on the Senate bill and tied it to his own experiences with racism.

Both measures called for greater transparency from police departments and additional training for officers, but a compromise was not reached before the August recess.