Stopgap funding talks bleed into weekend amid farm aid pushback

Tentative agreement turns sour as some Democrats object to freeing up farm payments without more GOP concessions

A sign advertises free meals for kids during the coronavirus pandemic on March 29, 2020, in New York City. (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images file photo)
A sign advertises free meals for kids during the coronavirus pandemic on March 29, 2020, in New York City. (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images file photo)
Posted September 18, 2020 at 5:34pm, Updated at 7:54pm

Late-afternoon optimism that a deal on temporary funding legislation was in sight turned into uncertainty Friday evening, as Democrats pushed back against the inclusion of farm payments that negotiators had earlier agreed to “in principle.”

Negotiations on the stopgap bill, which sources said would extend current funding levels through Dec. 11, were set to bleed into the weekend and have been kicked upstairs primarily to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. A House Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said legislative text wouldn’t be finalized until at least Monday.

The tentative agreement as aides described it earlier would replenish Commodity Credit Corporation funds, which have dwindled down to about $2 billion after several rounds of payouts to farmers suffering from trade disputes and coronavirus-related losses.

The agency is bumping up against its $30 billion borrowing cap as early as next month, after which it won’t be able to finance regular, nonemergency programs authorized in the farm bill.

Democrats had initially sought to keep the CCC funds out of the continuing resolution but as of Friday afternoon agreed to the proposal in exchange for extending the so-called Pandemic EBT program — short for electronic benefits transfer. The program was created in a March aid package and provides school meals for low-income children eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches but who aren’t in school to receive them.

The Pandemic EBT extension would cost around $2.7 billion; that’s far less assistance than the $30 billion farmers are getting, which was contributing to the holdup. Lawmakers pushing for the farm aid include vulnerable GOP incumbents such as Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, for example, and President Donald Trump himself touted the generous payments at a Thursday campaign stop in Wisconsin, which is critical to his reelection hopes.

Ernst’s race against Democrat Theresa Greenfield is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

In addition, the deal in principle was said to have dropped Democratic proposals for more election security funding and to extend redistricting-related census deadlines, which were causing concerns about potential undercounting in remote and low-income areas.

The Dec. 11 end date would also be a win for the GOP, after Democrats tried for a February extension which could give them more leverage over final spending bills next year.

Pelosi and Mnuchin had aimed for a drama-free CR debate, agreeing to leave out broader coronavirus relief issues that have bedeviled negotiators for months.

The plan had been for the House to file the stopgap legislation around noon Friday, and the Rules Committee had scheduled a 1 p.m. Monday meeting. But the deadline came and went without an agreement, and even after staff began reporting a deal was reached, lingering issues with the text kept cropping up.

The continuing resolution will cover every federal agency, since none of the dozen fiscal 2021 spending bills have become law. The House passed 10 of 12 bills over the summer, but the Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t even introduced any of its versions, let alone marked any up.

Without Trump’s signature by Oct. 1, a partial government shutdown would begin, sparing only those mandatory benefit programs and others that don’t rely on annual appropriations.