Senate clears massive year-end spending bill with coronavirus relief

Pandemic relief measure would deliver the first major infusion of new aid in nine months

Sen. Kevin Cramer crosses the street in the snow after a vote on Dec. 16. The North Dakota Republican was among several senators who unsuccessfully tried Monday to amend the spending package to strip out the wind credit extension. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Kevin Cramer crosses the street in the snow after a vote on Dec. 16. The North Dakota Republican was among several senators who unsuccessfully tried Monday to amend the spending package to strip out the wind credit extension. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 21, 2020 at 9:40pm, Updated at 11:58pm

The Senate late Monday night cleared a mammoth spending package for President Donald Trump's signature that would provide nearly $900 billion to address the COVID-19 pandemic and fund federal agencies through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2021.

Trump is expected to sign the legislation, though it could take a few extra days to get the paperwork ready. As insurance against a partial government shutdown, lawmakers also sent Trump a weeklong continuing resolution on Monday night, with little over an hour until the current funding extension was set to lapse.

The Senate cleared the measure on a 92-6 vote after a brief debate that mainly focused on the underlying bill's one-year extension of production tax credits for wind energy. Senate Republicans from coal- and natural gas-producing states argued that they discovered the wind credit "surprise" when reviewing the massive 5,593-page bill, and cited a deal cut five years ago to phase the credit out completely.

“I feel like I’m living in episode of the ‘Twilight Zone,’” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said on the floor, referring to the wind credit as a “market-distorting atrocity.” Cramer and fellow North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, along with James Lankford, R-Okla., tried to amend the package to strip out the wind credit extension, but Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., objected.

Wyden said he agreed with the sentiment that energy policy should be “technology neutral” without subsidies for favored industries, but that it wasn’t time yet to revoke support for the wind electricity market. “I would submit this is the best approach to we have today, which is a need to make sure that critical investments are not missed out on now,” he said.

Earlier in the evening, the House passed the measure using an unusual bifurcated process known as “dividing the question.” Lawmakers in that chamber first voted to pass the Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Financial Services and Homeland Security pieces of the omnibus on a 327-85 vote. Then they voted to pass the remaining eight fiscal 2021 spending bills, coronavirus relief and assorted other legislation on a 359-53 vote.

The mega-package was sent to the Senate as a single measure. Together, the 12 fiscal 2021 spending bills would total $1.4 trillion, not including the COVID-19 aid piece.

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Long-delayed aid

The pandemic relief measure would deliver the first major infusion of new aid in nine months, since Congress passed a roughly $2 trillion package in March. It would provide new money for small-business loans, $300 expanded unemployment benefits for 10 weeks, a new round of $600 tax rebate checks, billions for vaccine distribution and many other provisions.

The add-on measures include a lengthy list of the work the 116th Congress had yet to wrap up, including an extension of expiring health care and tax programs, an intelligence authorization bill, water infrastructure programs and language to establish a Women's History Museum and National Museum of the American Latino within the Smithsonian Institution.

The spending package is the last that Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., will shepherd across the House floor before retiring at the end of this session.

"There is one principle that has guided my 32 years of public service; when you see a problem — whether it's here or in the district or another community — do something about it," Lowey said.

Even as both parties cheered the $900 billion pandemic aid measure, House floor debate was peppered with recriminations on both sides after months of stalemate.

“The reality is we could have had a deal months ago on a coronavirus relief package,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee. “Instead, Democrats chose to play politics and chose not to take 'yes' for an answer.”

Democrats accused Senate Republicans of shutting down negotiations last spring by calling for a “pause” in aid.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the COVID-19 aid package amounted only to a “first step” in providing relief that the incoming Biden administration will increase.

Debate on the $1.4 trillion government funding omnibus was largely noncontroversial though several conservative Republicans voted against the package on both policy and process objections.

Some Democrats were also frustrated with leadership's decision to begin votes less than six hours after the massive bill was released just before 2 p.m. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called it “hostage-taking.”

“It’s not good enough to hear about what’s in the bill. Members of Congress need to see & read the bills we are expected to vote on,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. She added in a later tweet that not allowing the public enough time to learn about the bill and contact their elected representatives was a disservice to members and their constituents.

The last-minute December omnibus package with all of its add-ons has become something of a habit for Congress, which hasn’t completed its appropriations work on time since 1996.

Every year, rank-and-file members and congressional leaders decry the broken process and nearly every December they do the exact same sprint to the finish. The annual event leaves little to no time for lawmakers to review legislative text following weeks of closed-door negotiations.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer was visibly annoyed with the fact Congress was once again trying to wrap up a significant amount of legislative work in one bill at the last minute.

The Maryland Democrat said on the floor Monday night that he wants Congress to get it right next year, passing all 12 appropriations bills before the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. “I am frustrated as the majority leader, who is supposed to be able to make things work here,” he said.