Timeline for massive year-end bill slipping

Negotiators inching forward on appropriations, coronavirus aid and more, but need another week to wrap up

Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference Friday.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 3:04pm, Updated at 4:49pm

Congressional leaders are expected to introduce a one-week stopgap funding bill running through Dec. 18, according to aides familiar with the decision who asked for anonymity.

The move comes as it became apparent the current Dec. 11 government funding deadline would be difficult to meet, with more work needed both on coronavirus relief deal and the underlying omnibus appropriations package. The two chambers are likely to take up the one-week interim bill next week as negotiations continue, a House Democratic leadership aide said.

"I was hopeful we'd accomplish those objectives by next Thursday," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor Friday. "Unfortunately, things are not moving as rapidly as I think they ought to."

Leaders on both sides of the aisle don’t want to leave town for the year without completing work on a COVID-19 aid package, and they need the omnibus spending bill for a vehicle.

"Don't worry about a date. It will be in sufficient time for us to get it done," Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Friday. “The sooner the better but not at the expense of the initiatives that we need to address in the bills.”

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke Thursday about adding coronavirus aid to the omnibus. But Pelosi suggested negotiations on the latter are lagging. She said she hopes the “momentum” a $908 billion bipartisan pandemic aid proposal circulated this week “will accelerate discussion on the omnibus."

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., have “made great progress” on the appropriations bills, Pelosi said. But negotiations have been tied up for weeks over a myriad of funding and policy disputes between the two parties.

Chief among them are funding for a southern border wall, immigration detention beds, police restrictions, and how to classify money needed for veterans health care.

And in the latest snag, negotiators have deadlocked over environmental riders. As of Friday, a dispute over language that’s been in the Interior-Environment bill for years preventing the greater sage grouse, a prairie bird native to the western United States and Canada, from being considered for Endangered Species Act protections, was hanging up omnibus talks.

Democratic and GOP appropriations staff have been trading offers on omnibus text and report language, with Democrats as of Friday morning considering the latest Republican counter.

The veterans health care issue was the subject of talks between appropriators and White House officials. The latter largely agree with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that $12.5 billion set aside as emergency funds should instead fit within the overall $626.5 billion nondefense cap for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

But eliminating that emergency designation would force cuts to other nondefense programs because “advance” appropriations funded last year built in large veterans health care increases.

Other problem areas have included how to handle the $2 billion sought by President Donald Trump and Republicans for border wall funds, and Democrats’ desire to cut immigrant detention bed capacity by half from the prior year.

One option that’s been tossed around is to break the omnibus into two packages: a 10-bill measure and another carrying just the Homeland Security and Military Construction-VA bills.

That would prevent lawmakers from having to “take it or leave it” in one fell swoop, and also avoid voting for one giant bill, something lawmakers on both sides dislike. But that option isn’t being seriously weighed by leadership at this point.

Pelosi said leaders are working toward having everything in one bill "because we would want a big strong vote."

Pension progress?

There were still big-ticket ride along measures being worked out by House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.

The two top tax writers met Friday morning and discussed possible paths forward for a package of tax extenders and renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences tariff relief program for developing countries -- both expiring Dec. 31 -- as well as U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal fixes. Health care program extensions are also in the mix, Neal said.

Neal said he and Grassley were nearing agreement on a relief measure for faltering union pension plans that Democrats have been pushing for years but haven’t been able to get through the Senate.

“I want that done,” Neal said of the multiemployer pension bill, adding that Grassley was “very open-minded. In fact I think there’s a framework for an agreement.”

Neal said he and Grassley would probably talk again Monday after weekend staff discussions to try to reach agreement based on parameters the two chairmen discussed.

“I gotta tell you, this conversation with him this morning -- I don’t know what’s gonna come of it, but it really went well,” Neal said.

Another tax issue that remains to be worked out is deductibility of expenses paid for with Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The Treasury Department and IRS have ruled that firms receiving loan forgiveness under PPP can't also deduct business expenses with those funds. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as hundreds of business groups argue the Trump administration's position will put struggling firms on the hook for surprise tax bills.

Aid issues

Negotiators still have several issues to work through to finalize a coronavirus aid package, like how much funding to provide to state and local governments to meet a key demand from Democrats and how to structure liability protection provisions for businesses that are crucial to getting Republican support.

The $908 billion package, for which a bicameral group is working to finalize legislative text by Monday, is seen as the jumping off point for a deal. President-elect Joe Biden endorsed it in a CNN interview Thursday night as well as a separate statement Friday, noting it’s a down payment on additional aid next year under his administration.

“As they work on the text, we hope it'll take us very close to something we can put into the omnibus,” Pelosi said.

McConnell has yet to signal support for the bipartisan framework. He and McCarthy have been pushing a more “targeted” roughly $500 billion relief plan that the White House has said it supports.

But the administration appears open to some elements of the bipartisan framework. Breaking with McConnell, President Donald Trump's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said any new aid package should contain expanded unemployment benefits of about $300 a week through the end of March. That’s included in the bipartisan $908 billion package as well.

Finding compromise on unemployment may prove less difficult than reaching consensus on state and local aid.

The bicameral group proposed $160 billion in direct aid, but the distribution formula is still being worked on. House Problem Solvers Caucus Co-chairman Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said one of the challenges is “how to make sure that everybody is equitably taken care of but recognizing that not everybody is going to be made 100 percent whole.”

The $2 trillion March aid package provided $150 billion, but the formula was criticized for leaving out smaller communities. “This is about making sure that the money is allocated to those that are most in need and especially those that didn't receive anything out of the original $150 billion,” Reed said.

Pelosi and House Democrats started out with a $3.4 trillion aid bill that would inject $916 billion in direct aid into states and localities. Eventually they downshifted to a $2.4 trillion measure with $436 billion for state and local governments.

Then talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was willing to offer $1.9 billion, with $300 billion set aside for state and local aid, collapsed before the elections.

On Friday, Pelosi said it wasn’t a mistake to reject Mnuchin's offer or a $1.5 trillion bipartisan framework the Problem Solvers proposed before the elections. She said it wasn’t fair to compare those to the bipartisan package under discussion now because it covers a “shorter period of time.”

"We need to do it to save lives and livelihood with the hope that much more help is on the way,” Pelosi said, arguing that Biden's commitment to providing more relief once in the White House plus vaccines on the way are a “total game changer.”

Bridget Bowman, Ellyn Ferguson, Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.