Congressional leaders shifted their sights Friday afternoon to keeping the government open past midnight tonight, as their attempts to find a deal both sides could live with on another coronavirus economic package looked to be stymied.
“I’m adamantly opposed to shutting down the government that serves the people of the United States, and indeed globally. And I’m definitely not for keeping two million federal employees twisting in the wind about what we’re going to do so, that would not be an option for me,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
Under the current stopgap bill signed into law in last Friday, government operations are funded through to midnight Friday. Lawmakers have an all-but-final bill to provide funding through September 30, 2021, but are waiting to marry it with a coronavirus aid package still in negotiations.
The emerging package would extend and revive some of the most popular parts of the CARES Act from March. It would include direct payments to households but at a $600 level instead of $1,200 level in CARES. It would extend pandemic-related jobless benefits and revive a federal add-on payment, this time at $300 a week. It would also revive the Paycheck Protection Program that gave forgivable loans to small businesses.
Other issues were still under dispute Friday afternoon, such as the fate of Federal Reserve lending programs that Republicans supported in March but don’t now, and money for entertainment venues hit hard by pandemic lockdowns.
But to get time to resolve those issues, as well as get an agreement in writing that lawmakers can vote on, Congress needs to keep the government open.
Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking GOP senator, told reporters getting a stopgap bill done could be “a heavy lift” and that while he hoped to avoid a shutdown, one was possible.
While leaders continued to talk behind closed doors, rank-and-file members, seeing the prospect of having to vote quickly on a bill combining $1.4 trillion in annual spending plus a $900 billion stimulus deal in several hundred-page bill, were getting restless.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said he would object to Senate consideration of temporary funding bill unless he had a better idea of what was going to be in the stimulus bill. Under Senate rules, considering a stopgap bill would require that no senator object, leaving it at the mercy of single disgruntled member.
“I’m not gonna allow a CR to go through until I know more what’s actually in the package,” he said. Hawley has been pushing for bigger direct payments instead of the $600 ones.
Adding to the pressure is fatigue from lawmakers who want to leave Washington for the year-end holidays. Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, warned his colleagues he was not going to miss being with his wife on their wedding anniversary Saturday.
“I’d say to the Senate leadership, you better get this last vote done by tonight or you’ll have to do it without me,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave an upbeat assessment, saying he was more confident a stimulus deal will be reached.
“In fact, I’m 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.
One major sticking remained language sought by Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, to restrict Fed lending programs used during the pandemic and prohibit similar programs ahead.
Toomey wants to make sure that the Fed can’t restart lending programs to for small businesses and can’t backstop the municipal and corporate bond markets without getting a fresh green light from Congress.
“We’ll establish in statute that no more loans can be made from these programs, which was exactly what is in the statute now. It was always intended to be a temporary facility to get us through a momentary crisis,” Toomey told reporters Thursday.
Rep. Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called the provision “a poison pill.”
“An agreement on a coronavirus relief bill was within sight, but Senate Republicans are now holding up the entire package over this unacceptable provision designed to sabotage the economic recovery under the Biden Administration,” the pair said in a statement.
Sen. John Cornyn said the issue was also a big one for Republicans. “We got stuff we really want, too. Everybody’s gonna have to give a little bit,” he said.
Cornyn said another sticking point was an initiative dubbed “Save Our Stages,” aimed at getting money to shuttered entertainment venues. Some want to expand it to include museums and zoos, he said.
“I’m not particularly opposed to that as long as it doesn’t take what subtract the money that’s supposed to go to these small venues that have been particularly hurt,” he said.