Congress may be forced to pass its fourth stopgap funding measure since September on Sunday to avoid a government shutdown that would commence at midnight, as lawmakers worked to put finishing touches on a nearly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package and approve it ahead of Christmas.
A temporary spending bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), would need to be fast tracked through the Senate with zero members objecting. Otherwise, there could be a brief shutdown that could last anywhere from a few hours to a day or more.
Negotiators were still working Sunday afternoon to finalize the text of a roughly $900 billion stimulus package that is expected to include, among other things: $600 individual checks, $300 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance, small-business aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, food and rental assistance, and money for schools.
However, speculation and confusion were most of what lawmakers could offer to reporters’ questions that afternoon about what was in the final bill and when it would be ready. The stimulus will be attached to a $1.4 trillion annual budget, hence the need for another CR to avoid a shutdown cliff.
“Objectively, this is not a good way to run a government,” a senior Democratic aide told Newsweek.
Mist from a steam pipe is seen coming from a grate near the US Capitol as a snow storm develops in Washington, DC on December 16.
The Senate’s leaders—Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—expressed optimism Sunday afternoon that a deal was mere “hours away” and that a vote could come as early as later that evening. But among more rank-and-file members, there was pessimism about Congress’ ability to move so swiftly on two massive and expensive pieces of legislation that lawmakers have yet to even read.
“It always takes longer than you think,” warned Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the No. 4 Republican.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), also a membership leader, suggested a “feasible” outcome would be that the House vote Sunday night and the Senate vote Monday.
“None of us have seen the writing or what else is in there,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who suggested a CR should be “readied” because they may need a day to read over the legislation. “That’d be rather optimistic to try to move by tonight.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) raised the specter of whether he’d even allow another CR to pass, given that the funding deadline puts immense pressure on negotiators. While the House can move swiftly on any bill—even if a member objects to passing it unanimously—the Senate cannot, and would need buy-in from all 100 members or risk having to run out the procedural clock.
“We better get this done today,” Hawley said. “I don’t think I’ll consent to [a CR]. This plane needs to land.”
Negotiators spent the last few days working out a major disagreement involving the Federal Reserve’s lending powers and a Republican desire—led by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)—to limit the central bank’s ability to create lending facilities. The move was decried by Democrats as trying to tie the hands of the incoming Biden administration.
Toomey said Sunday afternoon that staff was working on “very, very minor crossing T’s and dotting I’s, but I think it’s basically done.”
Once Congress does finally get the legislation to the floor and passed, it will mark the end of a logjam that’s persisted among the country’s top leaders for the past nine months. The much-needed relief will come as millions of Americans are about to see their jobless benefits run out in the coming days and countless renters will face eviction at the beginning of next month.
“When we get this done, Congress will not deserve any special praise,” McConnell said on the floor. “When we finalize this measure and pass it, Congress will only have done our job. We will have finally done our duty in getting more relief to those who need it most.”