Stopgap funding up in the air as coronavirus relief talks drag on

Lawmakers face deadline Friday at midnight, as Senate majority leader says to expect weekend votes

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks with reporters outside his office in the Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks with reporters outside his office in the Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 17, 2020 at 7:47pm

Disagreements over a temporary spending bill, including whether one was even needed, threatened a government funding lapse as lawmakers slowly worked their way through COVID-19 aid bill disputes.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune said Thursday afternoon that negotiations on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill and pandemic aid package had turned into a game of "whack-a-mole" where one issue gets resolved and another pops up.

Lawmakers were prepping a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open over the weekend to buy time for votes in both chambers. But absent an agreement on the larger package's contents, that procedural step could face objections, Thune said.

“I know people who are going to object to that, that want to keep pressure on the process until we get a deal. So it would take consent obviously to do a short-term CR," the South Dakota Republican told reporters.

[Coronavirus relief package skirmishes bog down funding negotiations]

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer hinted that negotiators were getting close to an agreement on Thursday evening and might not need a temporary funding bill.

Hoyer, D-Md., said a decision on whether a stopgap was needed wouldn't be made until Friday morning, hours before current funding runs out at midnight. He referenced longstanding Office of Management and Budget guidelines that say the shutdown process won’t start right away if a spending bill is working its way through the process, even if a presidential signature is delayed past the funding deadline.

“Essentially the ruling is if you think it's going to stay open, you're going to pass something by Monday, they don't shut down government” Hoyer said. “We can do that by hopefully tonight coming up with a bill."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he expects the House to take up a short-term stopgap on Friday as a precaution, but that negotiators were making progress on the larger omnibus and relief package.

"I've heard they have three [draft stopgap bills] and they are trying to figure out how long of a CR they need in order to finish out the rest of our work," Cornyn said Thursday. "I can’t predict it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an announcement tonight of a deal."

Pelosi said that negotiators were doing “fine” and that “we'll have our announcement when we have our announcement.” She wouldn’t promise a House vote Friday. But when asked if Congress would be in session over the weekend, she replied simply: “I can’t answer for the Senate.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters a few minutes later they were “close.”

McConnell had just left the floor where he advised senators to be prepared to stick around all weekend to vote on nominations. “We're staying right here until COVID relief is out the door. In the meantime, we're going to stay productive while these negotiations are going on,” he said.

Fourth funding lapse

If either a stopgap or full-year spending bill isn’t enacted before midnight on Friday it would be the fourth funding lapse during the Trump administration and another embarrassment for lawmakers. But as Hoyer and Thune each suggested, the practical effects of a weekend funding lapse are likely small.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said as of Thursday evening that no one had clarity about how soon negotiators would broker an agreement or when votes would be held.

“There may be a partial lapse. It's clear we're here for the weekend,” Coons said. “It seems to me that the issues that remain unresolved are bridgeable. But the question is how long does that take them.”

Senators said Thursday afternoon that they were waiting for final details on payments to households, the duration of a federal unemployment insurance supplement, and how to get some money into the hands of state and local governments.

Republican leaders have pushed back on Democrats’ demands for state and local aid for months, saying they aren’t sure the funding is actually needed. Democrats agreed to drop $160 billion in direct assistance that had been worked out by a bipartisan group in both chambers, but the discussions over the last 48 hours have involved some alternatives.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said that “there's obviously a lot of interest in finding ways to get money to states that Republicans will be … OK with,” including money for education.

And with states in charge of vaccine distribution, which began earlier this week, Democrats are eyeing a funding boost for that purpose. The bipartisan bill would have provided $6 billion for vaccine distribution, including $3.4 billion for states, localities and tribes. On Thursday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told CNN that Democrats want to provide $30 billion to states for vaccine distribution.

There’s also a dispute over potentially up to $90 billion for pandemic-related needs funneled to the states, possibly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main disaster relief fund. Congress included $45 billion in the March pandemic aid package for FEMA disaster aid, but that money has since dwindled after the Trump administration tapped it in August to pay for unemployment benefits.

Thune said Republicans were seeking to put “guardrails in there to make sure that it's not just a slush fund for state and local governments, which would create a lot of problems on our side.”

Rebates, unemployment benefits

The debate over how much to provide individuals and families in another round of tax rebates appeared to be settling down, despite lingering frustrations.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said negotiators had agreed to $600 for adults and $600 for children. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the phase-out range would mirror the March aid bill, beginning at $75,000 for individuals and ending at $99,000, at which point no check would be provided.

“This will be a step forward in providing a modicum of relief to people who are struggling right now,” said Sanders, who’d been advocating for larger checks worth up to $1,200 per person. The Republican co-author of that proposal, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, hinted he was still holding out for a larger amount, even suggesting he might not grant consent for a weekend continuing resolution if the leadership decides to vote on one.

There were still frustrations over how long the measure’s expected $300 per week federal unemployment insurance will last. The bipartisan group proposed 16 weeks in their package, but that’s dropped potentially down to 10 weeks in leadership talks, according to Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., one of the bipartisan group’s leaders.

Manchin said that wouldn’t be long enough: “We’re going to need at least a full three months,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and stakeholders were left watching and waiting to see how much time they’d actually have to see text of the massive package before voting on it. It was possible a several thousand-page bill could be filed Friday and voted on in that chamber the same day; that’s happened already this year with a March relief package, for instance.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he thought lawmakers would clear the giant package by late Sunday.

"If I had to put an over and under on it, I'd say Sunday morning," Braun said. "So if I was going with the over or under, I'd take the over. I'm going to guess that's probably the best-case scenario."

Chris Cioffi, David Lerman, Doug Sword and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.