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Congress looking at busiest lame duck session in memory

There are roughly 10 legislative days until spending for the federal government expires, and as coronavirus cases soar around the country, the Senate returns to Washington on Monday with millions of Americans counting on Congress to also come to an agreement on a stimulus package.

That’s unlikely — at this point — to happen.

The list of must-do’s are long right now on Capitol Hill and this is the final stretch in the lame duck session. Aides on both the Republican and Democratic sides are confident that Congress can pass a spending deal by the December 11 deadline to avert a partial government shutdown, but a stimulus deal is far less certain. And at best, aides argue that all Congress might be able to do is add some stimulus provisions to the already-moving spending bill. Even that is a major lift.

Also, on the agenda? Congress has to finish the National Defense Authorization Act, a massive, bipartisan bill that sets defense policy for the country. It’s currently in limbo because of President Donald Trump’s opposition to a provision that would allow the eventual renaming of military bases named after Confederate leaders. Trump has threatened to veto, and although his opposition is not new, the clock is ticking, so expect that showdown to be in the spotlight over the next two weeks.

Wait, so still no breakthrough on stimulus?

Yes, even as millions of Americans are finding themselves out of work during the holiday season, even as the US surpasses records in coronavirus hospitalizations, even as this pandemic is as much a part of our lives as it has ever been, Congress may not be able to provide any additional relief.

As Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday, “it’s a huge failure on the part of the Congress.”

Some good news on spending

Over the weekend, appropriators continued to make progress on how to structure the 12 appropriations bills that have to be negotiated over the next two weeks. Senate Republican and House Democratic appropriators hit a milestone last week when they locked in funding levels for all 12 of those bills. Still, these massive negotiations can always go sideways as fights over the President’s border wall, abortion funding language and other sticking points rear their head.

What has happened to the stimulus?

If you’ve been watching these negotiations since July, you know the sticking points. Republicans believe in a more specific approach, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell making it clear his Republican majority would be comfortable with a stimulus bill in the neighborhood of $500 billion and no more than $1 trillion. Democratic leaders, however, have made it clear that they want something closer to $2 trillion.

That doesn’t even begin to identify key sticking points in what both sides think should be funded. They are miles apart about enhanced unemployment benefits, liability insurance, and state and local funding. And talks over a standalone stimulus bill have ceased to exist. In the wake of the election, top administration negotiator Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been sidelined.

And the talks — if you can even call them that — are now occurring among leadership staff, but in the context of what could be added to a spending bill that already has to move before the end of the year.

The best chance for a deal might have been before the election. Trump wanted one, Mnuchin had inched toward a $1.8 trillion package and Democrats on the front lines for reelection were urging leadership to cut a deal even if it was far from perfect. But after the election, the dynamics shifted. Trump focused his time on his legal battles across the country and Mnuchin stepped out of the talks. Since then, there has been virtually no progress on the stimulus.

One thing to remember

McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi haven’t sat down to hammer out a deal. But their staffs — given the permission — might be able to find some common ground. Remember, these negotiations don’t exist until they do. And once things are moving, they always do have the potential to move quickly.

There are areas where Republicans and Democrats agree. Both sides know that another round of the Paycheck Protection Program could inject small businesses with the kind of cash that could keep them afloat for another quarter until there is a coronavirus vaccine. Both sides know that more funding for vaccine distribution would be helpful. They realize that expanded unemployment benefits for individuals who have blown through the 26 weeks of state benefits are essential and everyone knows that schools could use more money to weather the rest of the pandemic.

But someone has to sit down and negotiate. Right now, that’s not really happening much at the leadership level. But watch closely over the next several days. It could change.

Can’t a bipartisan gang save the day here?

There have been some bipartisan conversations among rank-and-file members trying to see if there is any way they could find agreement among themselves and bring some ideas to leadership. Those talks aren’t far along, but include about eight to 10 members, including Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, according to aides. The talks are not formal, but it’s a sign that members want to get something done before the end of the year.

What expires

It’s key to remember the colossal cliff we are facing at the end of the year. When the CARES Act was written in the spring, most members weren’t prepared for a pandemic that was going to be raging well after Christmas. And even those that were had hoped that there would be more legislation to ensure Americans were protected.

That hasn’t happened, and many programs in the CARES Act are now set to expire. Some, like a federal eviction moratorium and a pause in student loans, could be extended again through executive action. But others — the expansion of how many weeks someone can be on unemployment, for example — cost money and those programs would need Congress to step in.

Key dates

December 11: Government funding runs out at midnight.

December 31: A slew of provisions from Families First Act, CARES Act and executive actions that the President signed in the fall sunset, including:

  • Deferment on student loan payments
  • A federal eviction moratorium (although some states have instituted their own)
  • Expansion of unemployment insurance to include gig workers
  • The increase in the number of weeks Americans can be on unemployment, from 26 to 39
  • Mortgage forbearance for some single-family homes
  • Waived penalties for individuals with hardships who borrow money out of their 401(k) early
  • Expanded family and work leave for Americans dealing with the impacts of coronavirus
  • The $150 billion in federal funding for state and local governments must be distributed by the end of December or the money must be returned to the feds

That list does not include programs that have already lapsed or could be enhanced to help Americans struggling, which include:

  • Another round of the Paycheck Protection Program
  • Another round of stimulus checks
  • Federal unemployment benefits
  • Vaccine distribution money

Speaking of money for the vaccine

This is your reminder that the CARES Act focused money for the vaccine largely on production and development, not on distribution. Now that the country is on the cusp of beginning the process of vaccinating Americans, there are serious concerns about whether there is enough funding to educate Americans and ensure they can get the vaccine when it’s ready. Back in the fall, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told Congress they’d need between $5 and $6 billion to get the job done. In conversations with the Department of Health and Human Services and congressional appropriators, the current amount of federal funding available is in the hundreds of millions. HHS has said that will be plenty, but the national association that represents health departments around the country has requested more than $8 billion from Congress to ensure they have the money they need.

Aides I’ve talked to have emphasized that of all the items that might be able to be added to a spending bill, vaccine distribution funding would be a high priority.

Where is the President?

Trump has been a little distracted lately when it comes to the spending bill, but sources close to the White House say that they are confident Trump will sign a bill to keep the government funded in a few weeks. Still, it’s worth watching the fights over the border wall in the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill as well as other usual snags over abortion language that always come up. Trump tweeted over the weekend that he thought Congress should act when it came to restaurants, one of the first nods to the country’s economic crisis he’s given since the election.

“The restaurant business is being absolutely decimated. Congress should step up and help. Time is of the essence!,” he said.

CNN

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