WASHINGTON – Americans waiting on stimulus checks and other kinds of COVID-19 relief may have to wait for a President Biden.
With just a few weeks left in Congress’ session and President Donald Trump preoccupied with the election aftermath, the path appears more murky than ever for a deal to be brokered during the “lame-duck session,” the period in November and December before a new Congress and president take power in January.
Congress left town before the election without a COVID-19 stimulus deal in hand, failing to reach an agreement after months of often contentious negotiations. Both chambers will return to Washington next week with hopes of coming to a deal, but already, it’s clear that a compromise could be still be difficult.
Historically, the lame-duck session has not led to large bipartisan pieces of legislation, and thus far, leaders in both parties haven’t displayed any willingness to relent on key demands. Making matters worse, the relationship between the top two negotiators – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – broke down before the election, and it’s still unknown whether the president will even support a deal if one is brokered.
Congress’ top priority during the short session will be a spending bill to avert a government shutdown in December. Though a coronavirus stimulus deal remains a priority, Congress will have little time to resolve all its policy differences, reach an agreement and then pass it through both chambers before the House and Senate leave in December. The House is done with its year Dec. 10, and the Senate leaves Dec. 18.
In the aftermath of the elections, both sides don’t appear to have budged from their stances on what type of relief should be included for Americans.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a member of the Senate Republican leadership, told reporters Monday he thought a deal needed to be done “on the level we supported previously in the Senate” – referring to a roughly $500 billion package, or a quarter of what Democrats had wanted.
Democrats have countered that Republican proposals are too small. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Republicans’ proposals “inadequate.” Assuming Democrats lose two outstanding Senate races where Republicans hold sizable leads, Senate Democrats are likely to remain in the minority in the next session of Congress. If Democrats win both runoff elections in Georgia, they would hold 50 seats, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote.
Another member of Republican leadership, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters on Capitol Hill Monday that both sides said they wanted a deal, “but both sides are saying the one they want.”
“I still think the lame duck is hard” for a deal to be done, he said.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., put the onus on House Democrats to move a bill that could pass in the Senate. Stimulus “depends on Speaker Pelosi,” he told reporters Tuesday, adding he was not going to vote for a bill filled with Democratic priorities, and “I don’t think most Republicans will.”
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Both sides say they want a deal
For months, top Democratic leaders and the White House worked to come to a bipartisan compromise on another coronavirus stimulus bill. The talks were dizzying at times, with negotiations called off multiple times only to restart with promises that leaders were close to striking a deal.
Republicans and Democrats offered competing legislation to fill the void over the months, bills that were doomed even before they were introduced as the other side scorched key provisions. Republicans are leery about a high-dollar bill because of the soaring national debt, while Democrats are pressing for a large package that would include funding for a host of programs, including aid to state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks and boosted unemployment benefits.
The last significant relief Congress passed to help Americans weathering the pandemic was in March – eight months ago. Since then, unemployment rates have stayed at levels not seen since the 2008 recession, and coronavirus cases have topped 10 million in the U.S. Vital programs, including boosted unemployment and a small-business loan forgiveness program, have expired.
Pelosi, who has been leading the talks on behalf of Democrats, has not spoken to Mnuchin, one of the top White House negotiators, since before the election.
The relationship between Mnuchin and Pelosi seemed to fall apart by the end of October as the two traded letters blaming the other for the impasse. The letters marked the last time both communicated.
Pelosi told reporters on Friday she believed Biden winning the presidency was a key advantage in talks because that would allow leaders “to work together in a bipartisan way.” She has continued to stress the need for a COVID-19 relief package to pass quickly.
“There’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans,” the California Democrat said. “We have a responsibility to find our common ground, stand our ground where we can’t, but make it clear to the American people what the choice is.”
But the dynamics are shifting.
The virus has continued its spread throughout the U.S. and spikes have been identified in a number of states. But Republicans have pointed to gains in the economy and successful results in a potential coronavirus vaccine to argue that a large package wasn’t needed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the point Tuesday at his weekly news conference, saying that with recent developments in vaccine production and the declining unemployment rate, “I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion-dollar package, so I think it should be highly targeted.”
Days earlier, the Kentucky Republican had said another package was needed and “I think we need to do it before the end of the year.”
Lame-duck sessions don’t typically lead to bipartisan deals
Lame-duck sessions have not historically been productive sessions of Congress for big shifts in policy. In Dec. 2008, amid the Great Recession, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $14 billion loan program for the auto companies, but the Republican-controlled Senate declined to take action on it. Congress had passed a $700 billion aid package for financial services companies a month before the election.
But there are exceptions. After the 2010 midterms, when Democrats lost the House, Congress repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay people from serving in the military. And after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Congress still passed a major defense authorization bill and legislation authorizing new funding for medical research.
Several pieces of must-pass legislation at the end of the year give lawmakers an opportunity to combine stimulus with other legislation into a bill that could more easily pass both chambers.
The government faces a December shutdown deadline, and some lawmakers speculated that stimulus spending could be combined with government funding legislation.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters Monday that “it might not be a bad idea” to combine stimulus with the annual spending bill – but only if a deal had been reached on more relief.
But the path forward could be tricky, Congress and the White House have endured two government shutdowns in Trump’s term. It’s also unclear whether Trump, who has been focused on challenging election results, will still have the same appetite for another package.
Many House Democrats have continued to pressure leaders into coming to a deal. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., encouraged Pelosi to take an offer the White House had dangled before the election.
“If we get $1.8 trillion? I think we would definitely want to make the deal. And it’s gonna be catastrophic if we don’t,” he told Axios on Monday. He speculated Pelosi held out on a deal because she thought Democrats would have been able to win the Senate and gain a larger majority in the House. But Democrats lost seats in the House and are unlikely to gain a majority in the Senate, and it is now unclear if the White House is even willing to even revive its previous stimulus offer.
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What does Biden want?
If a package doesn’t come together before next year, that means coronavirus relief could be one of the first matters Biden may have to address after taking office.
“It will be the first test for Biden,” said Doug Heye, a strategist and former top aide to House Republican leadership. “It’s an opportunity for him to come out of the gates and show whether he can govern and whether he can govern in a more positive and bipartisan way than we’ve seen over the last four years.”
Biden told reporters Tuesday that he had talked to Schumer and Pelosi about relief plans and hoped Trump had the “sensitivity and knowledge” to recognize the need for immediate relief.
While Republicans and Democrats may continue to differ on what should be included in an overall package, Biden is known for striking deals on Capitol Hill. Former President Barack Obama sent his vice president to the U.S. Capitol multiple times over his two terms to negotiate deals with McConnell. The pair have gotten along well over the years they’ve worked together, but it’s unclear whether that will continue.
Although the president-elect has not released his own stimulus legislation, his transition team’s plans mirror many Democratic priorities. Among the top policies listed under the team’s “economic recovery” proposals are aid for state and local governments, extending a boost to unemployment benefits, and providing aid to small businesses, though specific funding amounts are not listed.
His team’s plans to address the COVID-19 pandemic go beyond Democrats’ previous plans, proposing, among other provisions, nationwide mask-wearing mandates implemented through state and local governments.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 stimulus: Senators skeptical deal possible before January