Coronavirus relief package skirmishes bog down funding negotiations

Capitol Hill leaders say they're optimistic, but another stopgap funding extension likely needed

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., greets Reps. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., and Katherine Clark, D-Mass., far left, in the Capitol on Dec. 10.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., greets Reps. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., and Katherine Clark, D-Mass., far left, in the Capitol on Dec. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 17, 2020 at 10:39am, Updated at 1:43pm

With less than 48 hours until government funding expires, lawmakers on Thursday were inching closer to a pandemic aid and omnibus appropriations agreement, though a very short-term stopgap spending bill was likely.

While the $1.4 trillion omnibus measure is mostly complete, leadership hopes to attach a roughly $900 billion aid bill to the fiscal 2021 appropriations package, and it’s unlikely they would allow the omnibus to move forward on its own.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday morning on the floor that negotiators were on the “one-yard line” of completing the omnibus. He said that work depended on wrapping up “parallel business” of pandemic relief legislation, though that may not happen before the temporary funding bill expires on Friday at midnight.

“We're going to stay right here until we are finished, even if that means working through the weekend, which is highly likely,” McConnell said. “And if we need to further extend the Friday funding deadline before final legislation can pass in both chambers, I hope we'll extend it for a very, very short window of time.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said a few minutes later that lawmakers were “putting the final touches” on the package, but details on unemployment insurance, direct payments to households and small-business funding were still being debated.

“We have a responsibility to get this right,” Schumer said on the floor.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday morning didn't have much to say on the status of the negotiations, but suggested Democrats had sent an offer to Republicans for review. "We made some progress this morning and we're waiting to hear back," she told reporters. "We'll let you know."

Senate Majority Whip John Thune told reporters Thursday morning that he thinks negotiations are “coming to a close,” but that a 24- to 48-hour stopgap might be needed to avoid a funding lapse as Congress votes on the package.

Moving the dials

Pandemic aid talks had appeared to be going well Wednesday morning, but things slowed considerably later in the day as Democrats and Republicans grew increasingly frustrated. Both sides began claiming the other was playing games, dragging their feet, or bringing up new objections or new proposed additions, according to sources with knowledge of the talks who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

[Fine print issues snag tentative pact on coronavirus relief bill]

Various skirmishes became apparent over the course of the day Wednesday, including how to structure housing assistance for low-income renters, the structure of broadband connectivity grants and the ongoing divide between the parties on state fiscal relief. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said on MSNBC on Thursday morning that nutrition assistance was one of the issues still in play.

“We need to pass, for instance, a nutritional program. That’s one of the things that I understand is holding us up at this point in time,” Hoyer said. “We see food lines of people who never, ever in their lives expected to have to go to a food kitchen to support their families.”

The leadership negotiations have been building off a $748 billion framework developed by a bipartisan group in both chambers, with the addition of money for direct payments to individuals and families.

The bipartisan plan proposed about $13 billion in food aid, including a 15 percent increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for four months, money for food banks and pantries, school and child care meal programs, meal delivery to seniors and more.

Some Democrats charged in private that Republicans wanted to renegotiate much of the bipartisan group’s compromise relief bill, sources said. But a GOP aide said despite all the talk of the bipartisan group’s plan, members of both parties agreed that committees of jurisdiction would ultimately decide what is in the package.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday that the final compromise was likely to include the four-month, 15 percent SNAP boost.

Hoyer also said the structure of tax rebates to households and the formula for rental assistance were still issues under discussion. "I think, really, right now it’s some of the small technical difficulties," Hoyer said.

Thune told reporters that discussions were still underway about the size and scope of the rebate checks, which weren't in the initial bipartisan group plan. Some lawmakers want to boost the payments from the roughly $600 per person under discussion; others want to further limit the household income level above which the payments phase out.

“I know there's been a lot of discussion about how to further restrict who gets it so it really helps the people who need it the most,” Thune said. He added that discussions about preventing people who receive extra unemployment benefits under the bill from also getting rebate checks has been set aside over difficulty in drafting that provision.

Zoos and museums

Debates about providing additional money to performing arts venues and making sure the “door is shut” on Federal Reserve lending authority were two other outstanding issues, Thune said.

Schumer, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and others in both chambers have been pushing for direct grants to theaters and other live entertainment venues, aside from Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans and other small-business aid.

As a result, Cornyn told reporters on Thursday, those seeking money for various entities saw an opportunity to advocate for their own priorities, which was slowing things down.

"The problem is, other people saw it likely to move and they wanted to ... become part of the bill. Zoos, museums, so forth and so on, which I'm not opposed to as long as it doesn't take the money that is so important to these venues that [have] been crushed by the virus," Cornyn said. "So we're trying to work out a fair formula. That’s what’s hanging it up."

Cornyn said there were also technical issues involving how to help community theaters who've experienced steep losses but have received some help from private donors.

Senate Small Business ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said negotiators were discussing a range of $10 billion to $17 billion for live entertainment venues, but the numbers were impacted by the overall allocation for small-business relief.

Even at the roughly $330 billion target they are looking at, Cardin said, "we have expectations we can't meet."

Restaurants likely won't receive a separate carve-out in the package, Cardin added, though he thinks some of that industry's needs can be covered through the PPP revival being discussed.

Cardin added there was also still a dispute over letting PPP recipients deduct expenses paid for with forgiven loans. The Treasury Department opposes that provision, despite support on both sides of the aisle, arguing it would let businesses "double dip" by getting both direct federal aid and tax deductions.

On Fed lending authority, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and other Republicans have backed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's push to close down several facilities stood up earlier this year to buy bonds and loans or lend directly to businesses and states and localities. Democrats have resisted, arguing that would tie President-elect Joe Biden's hands in dealing with economic recovery next year.

Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, said the reasons for terminating the facilities had nothing to do with politics. He said lawmakers on a bipartisan basis in the original March law set the lending programs to end on Dec. 31.

Crapo, whose panel has jurisdiction over housing programs, said there was also an outstanding issue involving rental assistance in the package. He said different views on how those provisions and a separate evictions moratorium should be written were still the subject of negotiations.

"I personally am negotiating for an effective rental assistance program that would avoid the need for an eviction moratorium," Crapo said.

David Lerman, Doug Sword and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.