Census deadlines dispute hangs up stopgap funding talks

The dispute was threatening to upend congressional leaders’ aim for a drama-free “clean” stopgap measure

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Republicans are looking at pushing the annual spending bills to after the November elections.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Republicans are looking at pushing the annual spending bills to after the November elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 12:26pm, Updated at 6:17pm

Negotiations on government funding to avoid partial shutdown starting Oct. 1 have hit a rocky patch over a Democratic push to postpone 2020 census-related deadlines.

The dispute was threatening to upend congressional leaders’ aim for a drama-free “clean” stopgap measure that they want to introduce by the end of this week and take up in the House early next week. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said the measure could extend current funding levels through Dec. 18, although a final decision hadn’t yet been reached, with some Democrats pushing a longer-term stopgap into February.

Other tricky issues, such as a push to reinstate lawmaker pay raises after 11 years, appear to have been resolved; the member pay freeze will remain, according to sources who weren’t authorized to speak for the record. It also looked like the Federal Emergency Management Agency would retain additional disaster relief funds that could potentially be used to supplement unemployment benefits that will soon run dry.

But Republicans were pushing back against “poison pill” census provisions. According to people familiar with the talks, Democrats want to extend the Dec. 31 deadline for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to deliver census apportionment data to President Donald Trump, which he is to present to the House clerk during the first week of the new Congress in January.

[Hoyer: House eyeing vote on stopgap funding bill next week]

That message will contain each state’s population and resulting number of House lawmakers representing each state. The House clerk would then deliver the redistricting data to states to implement, starting with the following Congress.

Democrats would prefer a potential new occupant of the Oval Office to be in charge of handling the final census data next year, and they also argue that delaying the deadlines would ensure a full and accurate population count given coronavirus-related obstacles.

It’s not just Democrats. Alaska GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan joined Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in introducing legislation on Tuesday to extend the Dec. 31 deadline to April 30, 2021. Their bill would also extend the deadline to deliver redistricting information to the states from March 31 to July 31. They’d also require the Census Bureau to extend their actual counting for an extra month beyond their current Sept. 30 end date for census field operations.

A rushed census increases the risk of undercounting in remote communities in their states, the Hawaii and Alaska senators said Tuesday.

In April, Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said they wanted to implement the same deadline extensions. But they never obtained White House support for a formal request to Congress, and Senate Republicans didn’t include it in coronavirus relief legislation. On Aug. 3, the Census Bureau said it would continue to operate under the Dec. 31 statutory deadline, including an accelerated collection of field data to wrap up by Sept. 30.

Timeline unclear

Democrats have yet to announce their preference for the continuing resolution’s length. But a February end date has gained steam in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats on Tuesday, according to a person on the call who declined to be identified.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters on a call Tuesday that he expects to vote on the bill early next week, even though a deal has not yet been reached.

“I think it’ll come to the floor earlier in the week rather than later in the week, and I think clearly it has enough time to pass the Senate,” Hoyer said.

Discussions about the must-pass bill are ongoing, with Appropriations Committee leaders and staff working to determine what anomalies, or special exceptions to funding levels and policy, as well as unrelated authorizations will be added to the spending bill. Shelby said legislative text of the stopgap could be introduced as soon as Friday.

Details of the emerging legislation are still “pretty vague,” although it could include health care extenders, according to Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass.

Two health care programs expire Sept. 30, the same date as general appropriations: higher payments to states for Children’s Health Insurance Program costs and Medicare funding for small practices in rural and underserved areas.

Several more health care provisions expire Nov. 30, which is the Senate’s first scheduled day back from Thanksgiving, while the House isn’t supposed to return until Dec. 1. Those include funding for community health centers; special diabetes programs; sexual risk avoidance education; and so-called spousal impoverishment protections under Medicaid, which ensure that when one spouse enters a nursing home, the one who remains at home can maintain adequate income and assets.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said no one has talked to him yet about putting health care extenders on the stopgap measure. “If they’re going to do that, they’ve got to clear it with me,” he said. But Grassley said if the CR runs through December, he thinks health care provisions expiring Nov. 30 should ride along.

Then during the lame-duck session before Thanksgiving, Grassley said he wants to take up longer-term tweaks and additions to the health extenders. “I just talked to different people about new provisions. I said the only way to get them is to get them on the extenders,” he said.

Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said he’d like to see legislation cracking down on surprise out-of-network medical bills included in the CR.

Heavy lift

If the extension ends in December, it could allow Congress to wrap up work on the stalled annual spending bills, although that would be a heavy lift given that Senate appropriators haven’t released or debated any of the dozen fiscal 2021 spending bills.

That would also require substantial compromise from House Democrats during a lame-duck session after the November elections, given that their appropriations bills passed mostly along party lines. If the White House and/or the Senate changes hands on Nov. 3, Democrats may have an incentive to hold over discussions on final spending bills into the new year once new leadership is in place.

In that situation, where there’s a change in control on Election Day and the government is operating under a continuing resolution running into mid-December, Democrats would likely push for another stopgap spending bill into the new calendar year.

A defeated Trump’s demeanor during those talks, and what that might mean for keeping the government’s lights on, is a concern for Democrats. Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., an Appropriations Committee member, said passing a stopgap into February has been discussed, though mid-December is also on the table.

“I prefer the longer the better, so they get through this administration,” Aguilar said.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said it’s more likely that the CR runs into mid-December.

“I think that’s where the bipartisan consensus is, and I think that’s good. I mean you just gotta keep the government open right now. Thank goodness there’s no appetite on either side to have it shut down,” Fleischmann said.

He added that it was in the best interest of federal agencies and the general public to wrap up fiscal 2021 spending bills in December rather than wait until next year.

“If you go further … into the next fiscal year, every month that you go in with a CR, I think you’re doing the American people a disservice,” Fleischmann said. “Because what you’re doing then is taking a shorter amount of time for the actual budget to take effect. And it just becomes very, very awkward.”

Fleischmann also said he preferred a shorter-term extension than what Senate Republicans are discussing because Dec. 18 would put negotiations perilously close to Christmas. The House is currently scheduled to adjourn for the year on Dec. 10.

Lindsey McPherson, Michael Macagnone and Doug Sword contributed to this report.