Hoyer sets Saturday deadline for omnibus spending deal

Senate appropriators have begun considering the need for another stopgap funding measure

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., appears at a news conference with other House Democrats in November.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., appears at a news conference with other House Democrats in November. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 2:56pm

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told fellow Democrats on a conference call Thursday he wants an omnibus spending deal reached by midnight on Saturday to avoid a partial government shutdown next week.

In theory, that timeline would give lawmakers and staff time to put the text into legislative form and post it publicly, in advance of a House floor vote no later than next Thursday. That would give the Senate a day to process it before current stopgap funding runs dry after 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 11.

The Maryland Democrat’s push for quick action on long-stalled negotiations came amid growing doubts that an omnibus package wrapping up $1.4 trillion in spending for the current fiscal year could be completed in time. Senate appropriators have begun considering the need for another stopgap funding measure.

“I think it’s going to take longer, but I hope it won’t,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters Thursday. While Hoyer has a “worthy goal,” Shelby said, “I don’t know if it’s realistic or not.”

Hoyer told the House Democratic Caucus on Thursday's call to urge top negotiators to get moving and avoid the need to remain in Washington any longer than necessary to wrap up the year's business. He dismissed Senate Republicans' pessimism, according to an aide's account of the discussion, saying: "If we think it will not get done, it will not get done."

Shelby told reporters that there are “probably two or three issues we’ve got to really resolve” before a deal can be reached. While a resolution is possible by Saturday, it is likely to take longer because “it always does,” he said.

While Shelby didn’t identify the key sticking points, negotiators have been stymied for weeks over funding for a southern border wall, veterans health care funding, immigration detention beds, and proposed restrictions on police departments, among other things.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairwoman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee, said Thursday that a dispute over whether to increase funding for detention beds, as the Trump administration wants, remains unresolved. She said a short-term continuing resolution to extend current funding levels and avoid a shutdown may be necessary.

Capito’s Democratic counterpart on the panel, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said his staff told him that a short-term CR would likely be needed because of several open items, including issues “revolving around the wall.” The Trump administration has requested $2 billion this fiscal year for southern border wall construction that Democrats oppose.

Also still unresolved is whether to exempt from spending limits about $12.5 billion in funding needed to give certain veterans access to private health care outside the VA system.

Exempting the money frees up additional spending for other domestic programs, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continued to oppose the move, said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Senate Military Construction-VA Appropriations subcommittee.

Schatz said he would oppose another stopgap bill at this point. “I think deadlines are good and I think we should stick to the 11th,” he said.

Coronavirus relief talks

Timely passage of an omnibus bill is difficult because of a push to attach emergency relief for the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that any coronavirus aid would likely need to ride on the year-end appropriations package because of limited floor time before the coming holiday recess.

McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke by phone Thursday afternoon "about their shared commitment to completing an omnibus and COVID relief as soon as possible," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.

"I think we're both interested in getting an outcome, both on the omnibus and on the coronavirus package," McConnell told reporters after his call with Pelosi.

Democratic leaders sought to make headway toward a compromise pandemic aid package Wednesday by accepting a bipartisan $908 billion relief plan as the basis for new negotiations. Democrats had earlier pushed for a $2.4 trillion aid package.

Republicans who support that bipartisan plan met with McConnell on Thursday to walk him through it. GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah said McConnell didn't endorse or dismiss the plan.

Romney pointed out that "new money" in the bipartisan package is only $348 billion, with the rest repurposed from unused appropriations for the now-lapsed Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and various Federal Reserve and Treasury loan programs.

McConnell appeared to dismiss the bipartisan plan earlier Thursday as he pressed for his own roughly $500 billion proposal that he described as more likely to become law.

“They have tried to create a dynamic where they move from one made-up number to a second, slightly smaller arbitrary number and call it a meaningful concession,” McConnell said of Democrats. “There are many important policies that have strong bipartisan support; there are many others that do not; and the way to help the country is for our Democratic colleagues to finally let the former group be signed into law while we keep arguing over the latter.”

For his part, President Donald Trump will support whatever McConnell is able to agree to, a White House official said. The biggest sticking points in the bipartisan proposal appear to be the inclusion of $160 billion for direct aid to states and localities — Democrats want more; Republicans generally want less — as well as softer language on business liability protections than most Republicans have sought.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she remained concerned about providing funds "for bailing out cities like Chicago or states like Illinois that have had past bad behavior." Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who like Ernst just survived a relatively close Senate race, said he was concerned that the liability provisions wouldn't have "enduring value."

Neither ruled out a version of the bipartisan plan, however, as support appeared to be building.

"I've never been more hopeful that we'll get a bill," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally who met with the president Thursday. Graham said he supports the bipartisan $908 billion plan, but that it still requires resolution of "policy differences," including on liability protection for employers from pandemic-related lawsuits.

And Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who lashed out at McConnell Thursday for pushing a Republican-drafted bill, suggested to reporters later in the day that momentum was building for the bipartisan plan. "The gang of eight is expanding its reach," Schumer said of some of the initial sponsors of the bipartisan effort.

House Problem Solvers Caucus members worked on the bipartisan plan with senators. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., the group's co-chair, said he spoke with Pelosi Thursday morning about improvements Democratic leaders wanted to make to the proposal.

"From the feedback I've gotten we're just about there," he said, noting open matters were mostly about language, not dollar amounts. 

Tax, trade provisions

If history is any guide, an omnibus package would also include legislation to extend a variety of expiring tax breaks. But Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley told reporters that a tax break package appeared increasingly doubtful this time.

“It’s very difficult because Democrats see every one of these tax extenders as just helping businesses,” the Iowa Republican said. “They don’t see it as the jobs it creates.”

Grassley also said he wasn't sure of the fate of a key trade policy change sought by the Trump administration. The U.S. Trade Representative's office has sought to reinstate tariffs on goods produced in U.S. "foreign-trade zones" if they contain inputs from countries other than Mexico or Canada, even if the products meet U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact origination requirements.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed back against that proposal, saying it would amount to a $2 billion duty increase on U.S. manufacturers and put them at a competitive disadvantage with Canadian and Mexican firms not subject to the requirement.

"I think that's almost the sole issue" hanging up a USMCA technical corrections package, Grassley said.

Ellyn Ferguson, Jennifer Shutt and Doug Sword contributed to this report.