While lawmakers dodged a crisis by passing a bill just hours before their deadline, there were already signs that reaching an agreement next week could be more complicated. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) warned their colleagues that they would not allow “unanimous consent” on another spending bill unless lawmakers voted on a separate measure to approve stimulus checks for Americans as the economy continues to weaken.
“I will not be prepared to withdraw an objection next week,” Sanders said. “We will deal with the financial crisis facing tens of millions of Americans.”
Congress has for months known about the looming expiration of government funding, but lawmakers sought to use the deadline to force action on a long-stalled emergency economic relief package. With the stimulus talks now bogging down, congressional leaders have scrambled to approve a one-week “continuing resolution” to buy more time to hammer out the elusive deal.
Complicating matters, lawmakers still have not reached an agreement on how to fund the federal agencies beyond the stopgap bill. They are expected to use the one-week extension to try to resolve their differences over that as well. Among other things, they remain divided over funding for homeland security projects.
Several potential threats to the one-week funding bill appeared to dissipate Friday. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) dropped his suggestion that he would hold up quick passage of the spending bill because of an unrelated dispute over the annual defense policy bill. Paul had objected to language in the defense legislation limiting the president’s ability to draw down troops from abroad. On Friday, he told reporters: “I think it’s a pretty important principle to discuss, so we did hold things up for a day on that, but we’re not going to on the [spending bill].”
Other Republican senators had suggested they might threaten the one-week continuing resolution until they get a vote on their legislation to end government shutdowns. That issue appeared likely to get resolved, according to congressional aides involved in negotiations.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he would quickly pass the one-week government spending bill. Under Senate rules, any senator can block “unanimous consent” to rapidly approve new legislation, making it easy for any one senator to scramble the timing of a vote. This would allow an intransigent senator to push final passage of the one-week bill into the weekend.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, told reporters Friday that leadership was still negotiating with various lawmakers and that the timing of a vote on the stopgap measure remained unclear. Thune suggested the Senate might agree to allow votes on the various matters pushed by Sanders, Paul and the other lawmakers, or decide to allow votes on none of them.
Even with enactment of the one-week funding bill, serious obstacles and deadlines loom for congressional lawmakers in the coming days.
They must resolve a number of policy disputes before they can pass the broader funding bill next week that is supposed to keep agencies operating until Sept. 30, 2021. Negotiations have particularly snagged over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, according to aides involved in deliberations.
And the inability to reach a deal on federal funding levels hampers talks on the broader economic relief package many economists say is necessary to stabilize a flagging economy. Lawmakers have said they will approve a broader economic relief package only as part of a bipartisan deal between appropriators on funding for the federal government.
Appropriators have as a result discussed approving a second temporary continuing resolution next week if federal funding legislation remains out of reach. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared to allude to that possibility during her news conference Thursday, suggesting talks could continue through Christmas. But that would pose other challenges, because delaying talks past Christmas would take lawmakers right up against the deadline for several critical emergency relief programs for millions of jobless Americans and renters that are set to expire at the end of the year.
Bipartisan discussions over the broader relief package appeared teetering on the brink of collapse, with congressional leaders descending into bickering and a group of bipartisan lawmakers struggling to cement a final breakthrough agreement.
Lawmakers have remained unable to break partisan disagreements over providing state and local aid, as well as a GOP-backed liability shield insulating firms from coronavirus-related lawsuits. McConnell has suggested dropping both matters from the final legislation, but congressional Democrats have rejected that idea since it would leave states and cities without adequate support. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released a proposal earlier this week that included stimulus checks but dramatically reduced the bipartisan group’s proposed spending on unemployment benefits, and was immediately ruled out by Democrats.
“We’ve had an eight-months impasse around liability issues, and it is proving to be extremely difficult to close that distance,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who has been involved in trying to break the logjam over the issue.
Sanders and Hawley, the surprising bipartisan duo, have made a forceful push for stimulus checks to be included in the next round of economic relief. But it remained unclear whether any relief package would have a chance of passage. Asked about being blamed for shutting down the federal government, Sanders told reporters: “They can blame me for anything they want. But people back home by the millions are going to be blaming Congress for inaction, for leaving their children to go hungry, or get evicted.”
Speaking in Wilmington, Del., President-elect Joe Biden on Friday urged Congress to pass a relief bill before the holidays.
“Millions of Americans simply can’t wait any longer,” he said, saying that state and local governments were in urgent need of assistance.
“This relief package won’t be the total answer … but is an important first step," he said. "There’s so much we have to do.”