First, the good news: Congressional budget watchers don’t think there will be a government shutdown when Congress’s short-term spending bill ends on Dec. 11. No one in Congress wants to add another crisis to their already full to-do list.
But there’s plenty of bad news for those who want stability in congressional spending and for the millions of Americans who need more money to fight the coronavirus and its economic impact. Even after a group of senators on Tuesday unveiled a bipartisan proposal for coronavirus stimulus, experts are pessimistic that Congress will come to an agreement before the holiday break on how to help Americans.
Congress is so dysfunctional that it may not even pass a long-term spending bill to carry it to next fall. (Instead, it would kick the can down the road for at least another month by extending the spending levels from last year.) It may even fail for the first time in about 60 years to pass a defense-spending bill, legislation that is typically sacrosanct for both parties. President Trump just threatened to veto that bill over a battle he’s waging with social media companies.
Here are the biggest roadblocks to getting stuff done in the three weeks or so that Congress plans to be in session before the holidays.
1. President Trump
The president has been a wild card almost every budget battle for the past four years, and he may still be one in his final weeks in office. He has the power to veto whatever Congress sends him, and he hasn’t yet said whether he would pass any spending bill that Congress can produce. (He’s so unpredictable that in the past, he has threatened to veto bills after indicating he would support them, only to back off at the last minute.)
No one, not even top Republicans in Congress, can predict what a lame-duck Trump will do. It’s possible that he’s got his eye on whatever will help him maintain political relevancy after he leaves office and set him up for a potential 2024 run, said Steve Bell, a former Republican congressional budget aide. Some have theorized that’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has avoided explicitly calling President-elect Joe Biden the winner, so he can keep Trump cooperative to pass a spending bill.
Trump’s favorite play is to threaten to shut down the government unless Congress pays to erect a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (a battle he never won with Congress, but one that led to the longest government shutdown in history two years ago).
However, Trump doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to Congress right now, said Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution. “It does not seem to me like he is as invested in engineering a shutdown over wall funding or any other issue as he has been in the past — in part because, publicly at least, most of his attention has been on making baseless claims about the outcome of the election.”
But he surprised many when, late Tuesday night, he tweeted a threat to veto the defense spending bill if Congress didn’t find a way to make social media companies like Facebook and Twitter legally liable for the content on them. He and other Republicans in Congress have argued, without evidence, that these social media companies over-police conservatives.
2. The Senate runoffs in Georgia
The presidential election is over, but not the battle for the Senate majority. Two Senate races in Georgia were extended to runoffs in January, and Republicans need to win one or both to keep their Senate majority and have significantly more leverage over a Biden presidency.
This could manifest most in the debate over whether Congress passes a separate defense spending bill. Here, too, the contours are largely Congress vs. Trump. The president has been most vocal about this legislation, threatening to veto it if it includes renaming military bases honoring Confederate figures, and he has stood by that threat even after the election.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted to rename the bases, but Republicans might be open to siding with Trump on this if it plays well politically among Republican voters in Georgia, Bell said. From their perspective, it would be a relatively small price to pay when the Senate majority is on the line.
For a hint on where this legislation is going, follow McConnell, Reynolds said. “I could imagine McConnell calling Trump’s bluff and Trump backing off the veto threat, but I could also imagine him not bringing it up at all if he thinks the veto threat is real,” she said.
On coronavirus stimulus, there are a number of conservative senators who don’t want to see any new money spent after the national debt increased to record levels under Trump.
Republicans helped push tax cuts and other bills to increase the deficit, but now McConnell needs to navigate his party’s renewed focus on clamping down on new spending. That becomes especially difficult for him if base voters in Georgia find new spending to be an issue, too.
The Democratic candidates challenging Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia are trying to make the lack of coronavirus legislation an issue in the campaign, pointing out how the senators opposed extending unemployment benefits of $600 a week.
3. Both sides hope their hand will be strengthened in a new year
Next year, Republicans in the House will still be in the minority, but significantly less so. They’ve picked up at least a dozen seats so far from House Democrats, with a few races outstanding.
Some in House Republican leadership are thinking they might as well hold out until next year to debate a spending bill and coronavirus relief, because they’ll have more leverage should some House Democrats split from their leaders, said Bill Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Democrats might feel more optimistic about coronavirus relief legislation in the new year, once Biden is inaugurated. After all, he has a good relationship with many Republican senators after serving with them for so long, and during his campaign he pitched himself as someone who can work with Republicans to find a compromise, which has eluded Washington the past four years.
Plus, if Democrats win the Senate runoff races in Georgia, they’ll control all levers of government in Washington — and most, if not all, of these fights will become moot in two months.