Last week was a roller coaster in Washington D.C. as hopes were continually up and down as the hours of each day passed. Congressional leaders continued to work on a possible final deal on both FY 2021 appropriations and another COVID-19 relief bill as the weekend approached, but every time there was light on a potential deal, someone would come along and pull the plug on that light.
In order to gain more time, the House passed a second CR, H.R. 8900 (116), to buy another week to negotiate. The short-term CR moves the government funding deadline from December 11 to December 18. It also extends a number of health “extenders,” a series of health care provisions that were set to expire with the previous CR. That CR was being delayed in the Senate, until late Friday afternoon, the Senate passed a one-week stopgap spending bill by voice vote. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was attempting to strip out of the annual defense reauthorization bill bipartisan language on restrictions on Mr. Trump’s ability to withdraw troops in his last 40 days in office. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was pushing for a vote on stimulus checks, but that is an issue they are already debating as part of a relief package. The last government shutdown was at the start of last year.
The appropriations discussion over how to allocate $1.4 trillion between the annual 12 appropriations bills is said to be progressing, but even if they had completed their work, they would have likely waited until final decisions on COVID-19 relief. On the appropriations side, they are still working on sticking points. The President is still seeking another $2 billion for wall construction, which will fall off the next Administration’s priority list. There have also been suggestions that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is reluctant to agree to a deal between all parties (including the White House) that would allow the veterans spending of $12 billion to not count toward the current budget caps. That would mean not freeing up an additional $12 billion for other programs. There is also the possibility that the veterans’ spending could be separated and put into another, possibly an emergency spending bill. There are likely other issues involving language and prohibitions on what Donald Trump can and cannot do in his last days.
While those discussions were taking place, much more uncertain discussions were taking place regarding another pandemic package. Talks continued to revolve around the $908 billion figure first released by a group of bipartisan senators led by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). The senators, whose numbers have been growing, released their document on Wednesday, although it is a general description of the key provisions of relief. One of the main features is an extension of unemployment benefits at $300 per week. The benefit would be a supplement to state benefits (as was the $600 that expired earlier this year). It would also extend benefits to workers not covered by a state’s benefits and extend expired state benefits. The new benefits would extend into next April. All that could change, however. The Administration, on Tuesday, December 8, released another version that complicated the talks. Their proposal would add a new round of tax rebates at $600 per person, but they would fund it by taking from the unemployment extension.
There is wide support for more rebates, but many see the extended unemployment as much more vital if it comes down to a choice. This is especially true since 12 million people are scheduled to lose their benefits the day after Christmas.
Other key parts of the bipartisan proposal include another round of small business loans (PPPs), this time covering businesses (including non-profits) with 300 or fewer employees (not the previous 500 employee threshold). Businesses would have to show a 30 percent loss in revenue in a quarter in 2020. Like the entire package, those details could change.
Other pieces include $10 billion for child care, an undetermined amount to rescue transportations systems, more funding for SNAP/food stamps, money for health care systems that are under strain, $82 billion for both schools and universities, $25 million for testing, $25 billion for rental assistance, and more for vaccine distribution. There are also two big sticking points that Majority Leader McConnell has linked: state and local relief and liability protection.
The bipartisan group envisions approximately $160 billion in state and local relief, and they have reportedly determined a formula based on states demonstrating revenue loss and Covid-19 related costs. Since May, Senator McConnell has insisted on broad and longer-term liability protections for businesses, including non-profits and health providers. Democrats have opposed such provisions, and there are debates over how broad it should be and how long term. Some reports indicate a compromise that would provide a temporary and narrowly focused provision. The Washington Post, among many sources, reported on Friday that McConnell’s staff told leadership on both sides “that McConnell sees no possible path for a group of lawmakers to reach an agreement on two contentious provisions that would be broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans, according to a senior Democrat familiar with negotiations.” A bipartisan agreement could see some Republicans and Democrats voting against it but still have the votes to pass. McConnell has attempted to link the two issues and suggested dropping both the liability and the state relief. That was a non-starter for many.
One thing is clear, they are running short on time. It will take time to both write and then pass any relief package. This Congress ends on January 2, 2021. In the meantime, December 26 is getting closer for 12 million unemployed workers who will lose their benefits, for state and local governments that will have to start the layoffs, renters and landlords who need relief, and for small businesses suffering the consequences of the pandemic