Dueling objections leave omnibus, coronavirus relief bill in limbo

Republicans block Democrats’ bill to boost direct payments, and Democrats reject GOP measure to cut spending

Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman was the GOP's in-person representative for Thursday’s pro forma session in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman was the GOP's in-person representative for Thursday’s pro forma session in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 24, 2020 at 10:29am

House leaders spent the morning of Christmas Eve rejecting each others’ attempts to address President Donald Trump’s concerns about the omnibus spending and coronavirus relief package, leaving the bill in the same precarious position it’s been in since Trump’s Tuesday night Twitter riposte.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer sought to pass legislation that would boost the size of tax rebates in the massive year-end bill that cleared Monday night from $600 to $2,000, to try to meet one Trump demand. But because House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had not agreed to give unanimous consent in advance, the chair could not entertain the request. 

Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, representing McCarthy on the floor, offered the Republican alternative, to cut the State Department and foreign aid appropriations title from the package and replace it with a stopgap bill for those programs. Democrats had not agreed to that unanimous consent request, and it too was not entertained. 

The attempts to pass the bills before a mostly empty chamber were largely for show, with each side knowing the other’s request wouldn’t be entertained. But they reflected a real sense of anxiety about Trump’s stance on the omnibus, with unemployment assistance to millions expiring the day after Christmas and government funding set to expire Monday at midnight.

[Trump demands Congress ‘amend’ massive spending package]

The pro forma session stalemate leaves Trump’s threats against the omnibus and virus aid lingering into the Christmas holiday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Thursday morning after the pro forma kabuki dance that she’d call up the direct payments bill again Monday, this time for a roll call vote. But the GOP-controlled Senate appears unlikely to take that up.

At the end of her statement, Pelosi offered the only clear way out of a mess that could leave millions of households without financial relief, states without vaccine distribution funds and the government shut down through the start of the new year.

“Hopefully by [Monday] the President will have already signed the bipartisan and bicameral legislation to keep government open and to deliver coronavirus relief,” the California Democrat said.

Hoyer told reporters at a news conference after the floor show Thursday that Pelosi was involved in ongoing discussions with the administration, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

He said Democrats were discussing the potential need for another stopgap bill to keep the government open and they would make a decision Monday about how to move forward if Trump has not signed the omnibus.

“We’re not going to let the government shut down,” Hoyer said.

A ‘disgrace’

Trump stunned Washington when he tweeted a video Tuesday night calling the omnibus, which his aides earlier said he would sign, a “disgrace.” He didn’t explicitly threaten a veto, but made a number of demands that are unlikely to be met in the waning days of the 116th Congress.

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The president requested lawmakers increase the “ridiculously low” $600 rebate checks provided in the coronavirus relief portion of the bill to $2,000. Trump also said he wanted Congress to “get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation” after ticking off a laundry list of items he found offensive, ranging from foreign aid to funding for FBI construction projects to money for the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian museums.

In many cases, Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request included very similar line items.

[Shelby's FBI, other omnibus priorities among those trashed by Trump]

House Democrats were quick to respond to part of the president’s request, saying they’d happily agree to $2,000 rebate checks since they had preferred that amount all along. Pelosi had blamed Republican negotiators, including McCarthy, for responding to Democrats’ questions about the highest figure Trump would accept for direct payments “with Sphinx-like silence.”

McCarthy sent a letter to House Republicans on Wednesday night blaming Pelosi for trying “to use the American people as leverage to make coronavirus relief contingent on government funding — which includes billions of foreign aid at a time when there are urgent needs at home.”

The omnibus is still being enrolled so it’s not yet been sent to the president, but that’s expected Thursday or Friday. Once the measure is presented to Trump, he has three choices: sign it, veto it or withhold his signature and trigger a pocket veto.

A pocket veto occurs when the president does not sign a bill and Congress adjourns during the the 10-day window, excluding Sundays, the Constitution provides for a veto. When Congress has adjourned, there is no way for the executive branch to return the bill, so it does not become law.

The 116th Congress will be forced to adjourn sine die at noon Jan. 3 when the 117th begins. That occurs before the end of the 10-day window, putting the pocket veto in play.

No one seems to know what Trump will do. McCarthy told House Republicans on a conference call Wednesday afternoon that the president has not said one way or the other whether he would veto the omnibus. Shortly after, Trump left Washington to spend the holiday at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Florida without any further signals about his plans.

The House and Senate are already planning to return to the Capitol next week to attempt to override Trump’s veto of the annual defense authorization bill. The House will vote Monday, and if its override is successful, the Senate will begin its override process Tuesday.

If Trump has not signed the omnibus by Monday, the House is also likely to use that day to vote on another continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

Jacob Metz contributed to this report.