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Chaos on Capital Hill as Congress fails to reach coronavirus stimulus deal Friday

Instead of passing coronavirus aid on Friday, Congress passed a two-day government funding bill, giving the lawmakers until midnight Sunday to reach a deal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Congress says it’s ready to cut a deal on a $900 billion coronavirus stimulus package, but will now work through the weekend to try and reach a compromise.

Update:

Failing to reach a deal on coronavirus stimulus, Congress passed a 48-hour continuing resolution that would give it until midnight Sunday to reach a deal, The New York Times reported.

“Negotiators in both chambers insisted they were still optimistic about reaching a stimulus deal in the coming days,” according to The Times.

Funding to keep the government operating, apart from coronavirus aid, was set to expire at midnight Friday. Congressional leaders, who had hoped to reach a stimulus deal before then, would have then added the aid package to the annual omnibus spending package.

Congress was unable to find an amicable resolution Friday in “disputes over disaster aid, Federal Reserve emergency lending and unemployment assistance,” Politico reported.

In a separate effort from the larger bill being negotiated by party leaders and the White House, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. proposed a standalone measure in the Senate that would send a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks to Americans. Fellow Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin opposed effort, killing the effort from consideration in the Senate.

The language of the effort was taken directly from March’s CARES Act, which provided $1,200 direct payments to a large number of Americans, The Hill reported Friday.

“I am here on behalf of the millions of working people in this country who are out of time, out of luck and are just about out of hope,” Hawley said on the Senate floor, speaking also on behalf of his standalone measure.

Johnson said any additional stimulus effort “aught to be far more targeted” — echoing an argument by Republicans from earlier in negotiations —and cited deficit spending as his argument against Hawley’s effort.

Hawley had threatened to not support the continuing resolution, essentially derailing the entire congressional effort, but walked those comments back after being “assured by Senate GOP leadership that (coronavirus) direct assistance to working people is in the bill under negotiation and will remain,” according to The Hill.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has made a similar threat, insisting that direct payment checks be $1,200, the Times reported.

But the two-day continuing resolution passed the House and then Senate Friday night.

Congressional leaders to work through weekend on aid deal with stimulus checks

“We need to complete this work and complete it right away,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, The New York Times reported. “The Senate is not going anywhere until we have COVID relief out the door.”

In that relief, American’s could each receive a $600 stimulus check from the government.

Although Congress agrees that more needs done to help individuals and businesses through the pandemic, Republicans and Democrats have disagreed for months on the scope and sticker price of additional coronavirus aid.

After passing the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed through trillions of dollars more in relief that never gained traction in the Senate. McConnell has instead insisted on more “targeted” aid in a $500 million proposal.

The $900 billion aid package appears to be an earnest compromise between the Senate, the House and Trump administration. And if passed, would be a needed Christmas gift for Americans and businesses reeling from the economic ills of the coronavirus.

What could be included?

Legislators on both sides agreed to $600 individual stimulus checks, which are smaller than the $1,200 direct payment earlier this year. Stimulus checks had not originally been part of a bipartisan offer earlier this month, but had been added by White House negotiator Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump — who will need to sign the bill into law — told allies that the checks should be “at least” $1,200 and up to $2,000, but ultimately didn’t press the issue because “White House officials told him that doing so could imperil delicate negotiations over the economic relief package,” The Washington Post reported.

The proposed compromise, which is expected to be added to next year’s $1.4 trillion omnibus spending legislation, is expected to include $300 weekly unemployment aid, $325 billion for small business, rental and food assistance and funding for vaccine distributions and schools, according to The Times and Politico.

What could be left out

Like all compromise, Republicans and Democrats each had to give in on earlier priorities.

“To get the deal through, lawmakers are poised to omit a sweeping coronavirus liability shield for businesses, a top Republican priority, and a direct stream of aid to state and local governments, one of Democrats’ major demands,” The New York Times reported.

A more expensive White House version of the coronavirus package from earlier this month had included money for both programs.

According to multiple news outlets, these are the remaining hold-ups to be ironed out over the weekend:

  • “Democrats were mounting a last-ditch effort to provide emergency aid to states, which they argued was critical to helping governments weather the pandemic and avoid huge layoffs and cuts in services that could reverberate through the economy,” the Times reported.
  • “Republicans were working to limit the power of the Federal Reserve to provide credit to businesses, municipalities or other institutions in the future, both by rescinding money earmarked to support Fed lending programs and preventing the central bank from restarting them using different funds,” according to the Times.

Brian Deese, President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming National Economic Council chair, said that would hamper government’s ability to respond to crises, “As we navigate through an unprecedented economic crisis, it is in the interests of the American people to maintain the Fed’s ability to respond quickly and forcefully.”

  • “Disaster relief, direct payment eligibility and money for entertainment venues were also among the final sticking points for negotiators. Then there’s the issue of drafting hundreds of pages of legislative text and getting it through the House and the Senate, where one individual senator can slow everything down,” Politico reported.
  • Some Senate Democrats say they support the legislation as a “down payment” on additional aid that could be passed next year, while “a number of Republicans are describing the bill now being negotiated as a bridge to when the economy will bounce back as people get vaccinated,” The Hill reported.

To keep the proverbial Christmas lights on in Washington, Congress will need to pass a second week-long government funding bill if an agreement isn’t met by midnight Friday.