WASHINGTON – Congress on Friday evening approved a two-day extension in funding for the federal government to give lawmakers more time to resolve the remaining sticking points on a $900 billion coronavirus relief package.
The measure was quickly approved within hours by both the House and Senate on Friday evening. President Trump still has to sign the measure into law.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Friday evening that there were “still some significant issues outstanding” in the way of a coronavirus relief deal. Hoyer added that House lawmakers should not expect to vote earlier than Sunday at 1 p.m. The two-day funding measure passed the House by a 320 to 60 vote margin, with all the no votes coming from Republican lawmakers and Rep. Justin Amash, L-Mich.
The measure passed the Senate unanimously. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., temporarily held up the vote and on the Senate floor urged lawmakers to approve another round of stimulus payments, but quickly withdrew his objections after a short speech.
Congressional leaders will still continue to work on the larger stimulus package with the hopes of announcing a deal this weekend.
But the duration of the stopgap and Hoyer’s announcement of Sunday votes raises the likelihood that the vast majority of lawmakers will be asked to vote on the massive stimulus package likely running many hundreds of pages with only hours to review it.
Asked about the appearance of holding such a swift vote, Hoyer said he was not as worried about the optics given the “thousands of people in food lines and millions of people worried about how they’re going to pay the rent . . . how they’re going to survive the next day. Much more worried about that.”
Earlier on Friday, some lawmakers were hoping that the pressure from a looming government shutdown would force congressional leaders to come to an agreement. Those leaders had informally agreed to try to resolve all disputes by 5 p.m. Friday, but that deadline passed without any announcement of new progress.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters Friday afternoon that expectations of a deal by the end of the day reflected “a triumph of hope over experience.”
With a two-day spending bill, pressure will be building to agree to a deal before Sunday at midnight. The nation would face a significant disruption if a federal shutdown actually took place starting Monday.
Besides the immediate deadline, lawmakers face a series of others coming due soon. Unemployment aid for 12 million jobless Americans and a moratorium on evictions are set to lapse by the end of the month, along with a federal paid family leave benefit and other federal protections.
Lawmakers had hoped to introduce the relief legislation as early as Thursday but have been delayed by numerous contentious issues, particularly a push from Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., to curb the emergency lending authority of the Federal Reserve. They have also not settled how many weeks to fund unemployment benefits for, although aides had earlier said that jobless aid would be funded for 10 weeks under the emerging compromise.
McConnell on Friday morning sounded upbeat about the status of negotiations and expressed optimism that a deal could get done. Lawmakers have also remained divided about extending a federal eviction moratorium, eligibility criteria for small business relief and the structure of unemployment benefits, among other provisions.
“The talks remain productive. In fact, I am even more optimistic now than I was last night that a bipartisan, bicameral framework for a major rescue package is very close at hand,” McConnell said. “The Senate will be right here until an agreement is passed, whenever that may be.”
The stimulus package under discussion would include $600 stimulus checks for millions of Americans, hundreds of billions of dollars in jobless aid, $330 billion in small-business assistance, money for vaccine distribution, and funding for a range of other programs. It leaves out aid to cities and states as well as a liability shield for businesses looking for protection from lawsuits that Republicans had insisted on.
The size of the stimulus checks, however, remains a point of dispute. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on Friday went on the Senate floor to push legislation that would provide for $1,200 checks – double what is currently under consideration. Yet, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., argued that sending more direct aid to Americans would be a fiscally irresponsible “shotgun approach.”
“We will not have learned the lessons from our very hurried, very rushed, very massive earlier relief packages,” Johnson said on the Senate floor. “We’re just going to do more of the same.”
Hawley shot back that lawmakers need to get their priorities straight: “We’re getting ready to spend, apparently, another trillion dollars more and yet working people are told they may be last, if they get relief at all,” he said. “Working people are living in their cars, working people can’t go to the doctor, working people can’t pay their rent, working people can’t feed their children. They should be first . . . not last.”
Despite broad bipartisan agreement on a range of provisions in the relief package, lawmakers were racing Friday to resolve the lingering disagreements.
The Federal Reserve’s lending powers have emerged as a key sticking point in the deal. Several of the central bank’s emergency lending programs are set to expire at the end of the year, with hundreds of billions of dollars in unspent funds being redirected toward a stimulus package.
Republicans are also pushing for legislation that prevents the expiring emergency lending programs, or anything remotely similar to them, from being created in the future. Toomey has said even under the language he is pushing the Fed’s emergency lending powers “remain on the books” and that the door would still be open for Congress to approve entirely different programs “if in the future, some dire emergency occurs.”
That argument was denounced by Democrats, who say the plan slashes the Fed’s broader authority and undermines the ability of the central bank and incoming Biden administration to fight future crises.
“These authorities should be maintained to allow for the Federal Reserve to act to prevent hardship to families across the country,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement. “If ever there is a time to put politics aside and do the right thing, it should be in the middle of a pandemic and corresponding economic crisis.”
Lawmakers are also arguing over how to structure unemployment benefits in the final plan. Republican negotiators are also seeking to include language that would gradually phase out the benefits over time, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of internal negotiations. Democratic lawmakers believe the measure is designed to avert a cliff in which unemployment benefits suddenly expire for millions, which would put pressure on Congress to pass an extension in benefits.
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane contributed to this report.