WASHINGTON — Congress shipped a temporary government-wide funding bill to President Donald Trump on Friday, averting a government shutdown at midnight and buying time for on-again, off-again talks on COVID-19 relief.
The bill, which sets a new shutdown deadline of midnight next Friday, passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote that came without much drama and sent rank-and-file senators home for the weekend with no clear picture of what awaits next week. The House passed the bill on Wednesday, and Trump is expected to sign it before midnight.
COVID-19 relief talks remain stalled but there is universal agreement that Congress won’t adjourn for the year without passing a long-delayed round of pandemic relief. An emerging $900 billion aid package from a bipartisan group of lawmakers hit a rough patch after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell swung against the effort, but negotiations are ongoing and pressure remains intense.
The House has recessed for a few days, with leaders warning members to be prepared to return to Washington to vote on the year-end deals, while the Senate will return next week.
The breakdown over the COVID-19 aid package, after days of behind-the-scenes talks by a group of lawmakers fed up with inaction, comes as Trump has taken the talks in another direction — insisting on a fresh round of $600 stimulus checks for Americans.
Sending direct cash payments to households was not included in the bipartisan proposal, but has been embraced by some of the president’s fiercest critics — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N,Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who introduced an amendment to include the checks with Trump ally Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Sanders had threatened to hold up the stopgap bill in hopes of adding a $1,200 direct payment to it but relented and sent members home for the weekend without delay — but with a warning.
“We’re not going to go home for the Christmas holidays unless we make sure that we provide for the millions of families in this country who are suffering,” Sanders said.
The one-week, stop-gap measure appears to have sapped some urgency from the talks. The next deadline would be Dec. 18, but both House and Senate leaders say they won’t adjourn without passing an aid measure.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress would keep working up to or even after Christmas to get an agreement. The new Congress is being sworn in on Jan. 3.
“Now if we need more time then we take more time, but we have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it,” Pelosi said. She also gave an upbeat assessment on the talks.
The $900 billion-plus proposal provides sweeping new funds for vaccines, small businesses, health care providers, schools and families suffering from the virus crisis and the economic shutdowns.
A key holdup has been the standoff over more money for the states that Democrats – and some Republicans – want and the liability shield that is McConnell’s top GOP priority but that most Democrats oppose.
The partisan group tried to marry those two provisions as a compromise.
McConnell had initially proposed a five-year liability shield from virus lawsuits, retroactive to December 2019, but the bipartisan group was eyeing a scaled-back shield of six months to a year. Labor and civil rights groups oppose any shield, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.
Democratic leaders had wanted far more in state and local aid, but were accepting of the lower $160 billion.
But many Republicans have long viewed the state and local aid as a bailout they would have trouble supporting, despite the pleas for funds coming from governors and mayors nationwide.
Late Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democrats pitched another liability proposal to the bipartisan group, but it was rejected by Republicans, according to a Senate aide granted anonymity to discuss the private session.
The Trump administration is back in the middle of the negotiations with a $916 billion plan. It would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.
The White House offer has the endorsement of the top House Republican and apparent backing from McConnell, who had previously favored a $519 billion GOP plan that has already failed twice. But Democrats oppose the plan in part because of the administration’s refusal to back the partial restoration, to $300 per week, of bonus pandemic jobless benefits that lapsed in August.
Story by Lisa Mascaro and Andrew Taylor.