WASHINGTON — After months of fruitless haggling and a frenzied few days of revived talks, Congress missed yet another deadline on Friday to deliver an economic stimulus package to help struggling Americans weather the pandemic, instead agreeing to extend government funding for an additional week as leaders continued to search for a deal.
The Senate approved a one-week stopgap bill to keep federal spending flowing until next Friday, securing additional time for negotiators to hammer out both a catchall spending package and an elusive coronavirus aid compromise that has divided them since summertime. Leaders have said they planned to merge the two packages should agreement be reached.
While President Trump signed the temporary funding bill and kept the government from shutting down, it remained unclear whether seven days would be enough for lawmakers to complete the dozen must-pass annual spending bills and break through their impasse over providing relief to millions of Americans, small businesses and schools and funding efforts to distribute a vaccine.
Time is waning for lawmakers to resolve policy divisions, with a number of government programs and policies that are helping insulate millions of Americans from the economic consequences of the pandemic set to expire in the coming weeks. An estimated 12 million workers could lose jobless benefits when two federal programs that expand and extend the unemployment insurance system expire this month, and a federal moratorium on evictions lapses on Dec. 31 without administrative action.
Support for the stopgap measure, which overwhelmingly passed the House on Wednesday, was widespread enough in the Senate that it ultimately passed by voice vote. But the private wrangling before the vote on Friday forecast how difficult it will be for lawmakers to strike an agreement on the first infusion of pandemic relief since April and the broader funding package.
An unlikely bipartisan pair, Senators Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, warned that they planned to try to force a vote on legislation that would send another round of $1,200 checks to Americans if that provision was left out of a deal, with Mr. Hawley promising “an interesting week” ahead in the Senate.
“If I have anything to say about it — and I guess I do — we’re not going to go home for the Christmas holidays unless we make sure that we provide for the millions of families in this country who are suffering,” Mr. Sanders said on the Senate floor.
Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, had also resisted voting on the stopgap bill without the promise of a vote on a measure to end the threat of government shutdowns, and it was unclear if he and other conservative allies would try another blockade.
Lawmakers and aides planned to work through the weekend to haggle over a stimulus plan and the broader spending package. Signaling that the negotiations could bleed into the holidays, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California noted on Thursday that Congress had previously worked through Christmas in the absence of an agreement.
An omnibus package may include legislation that would end the practice of “surprise medical billing,” which is when a patient is unexpectedly treated by a doctor who does not take their insurance, after top lawmakers reached a bipartisan, bicameral agreement.
The current proposal would protect patients from surprise bills, and would require insurers and medical providers who cannot agree on a payment rate to use an outside arbitrator, who would determine a payment amount based partly on what other doctors and hospitals are typically paid for similar services.
Ms. Pelosi said in a statement Friday night that the House planned to push for the legislation to be included in a final spending package.
But on the matter of providing additional pandemic relief, the two policy divides that have long impaired a deal — Republicans’ insistence on sweeping coronavirus liability protections and Democrats’ demands to provide an infusion of federal funds of states and cities facing fiscal crises — remain sticking points.
Democrats and some Republicans have argued that providing another round of relief for cash-short state and local governments is critical to avoid laying off city workers. But many Republicans have derided the proposal as a so-called blue-state bailout that could be used to close pre-existing budget shortfalls that were a result of mismanagement, not the economic fallout from the pandemic. Democrats have likewise warned that a sweeping liability shield prioritized by Republicans is a nonstarter, arguing that there has not been a surge in lawsuits related to the pandemic, and offering blanket protections against such suits would serve only to weaken worker protections.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has suggested jettisoning both provisions to get a swift agreement on a narrower package that would include funding vaccine distribution and the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular loan program for small businesses. But some lawmakers are reluctant to resort to that, citing the urgency of addressing the toll of the pandemic.
“These problems don’t go away,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who is part of the group that is working on a bipartisan $908 billion compromise framework. “If anything, they just get bigger. So if we can just stick to it, get a proposal that we can advance that resolves not only goals like unemployment, P.P.P., food security, but also the state and local and tribal and the liability issue — this is what we’ve been working on. This is what we need to keep doing.”
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. again signaled his support for a smaller relief package on Friday, saying at an event in Wilmington, Del., that “this relief package won’t be the total answer even if it gets passed, but it’s an important first step.”
But the $908 billion framework that moderate lawmakers have labored over remains unfinished even after days of private meetings and negotiations. Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, told reporters that “it is proving to be extremely difficult to close” the gap on liability protections.
Should a final agreement and legislative text emerge, it is expected to include some form of limited legal protection for coronavirus-related lawsuits, $160 billion in state and local funding, billions of dollars for schools, businesses and vaccine distribution, and $300-a-week supplemental federal jobless payments until the spring.
The proposal, for now, does not include direct payments in the form of stimulus checks. But Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, suggested that in exchange for removing funding for state and local governments, a compromise plan could include another round of direct payments.
“You wouldn’t be able to get as much as they’re talking about, but it would still be a pretty significant direct payment to people out there,” Mr. Thune said as he left the Capitol. “I think there’s a whole range of things that both sides agree on, and we ought to do today what we can agree on, and leave the other issues for another day.”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting from New York, and Thomas Kaplan and Margot Sanger-Katz from Washington.
Source: Read Full Article