Even as negotiations continue, congressional leaders are placing blame on each other for the lack of a final COVID-19 relief bill. A one-week extension of a potential government shutdown appears to have sapped some urgency from the talks.
The only must-pass measure this week is the short-term government-wide funding bill, which was approved by the House on Wednesday and needs to clear the Senate before Friday at midnight to avert a partial closure.
That measure would give lawmakers more time to sort through the mess they created for themselves with months of fighting and posturing on pandemic aid. Deadlines, real and perceived, haven’t been sufficient to drive Washington’s factions to an agreement. The next deadline would be Dec. 18, but both House and Senate leaders say they won’t adjourn without passing an aid measure.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is sending lawmakers home with no set schedule for their return, said Congress would keep working up to or even after Christmas to get an agreement. The new Congress is being sworn in on Jan. 3.
“Now if we need more time then we take more time, but we have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it,” Pelosi said Thursday. She also gave an upbeat assessment on the talks.
Top Democrats are placing their bets on a bipartisan group of senators trying to iron out a $908 billion package. That group is getting no encouragement from Senators McConnell, but members are claiming progress on perhaps the most contentious item: a McConnell demand to give businesses and other organizations protections against COVID-19-related lawsuits.
“I’ll promise you this, the Republicans will continue to work in good faith just as we put forth bills again and again that the Democrats have voted no on, just as we worked with the Senate and the White House, just as we know there’s an opportunity to help those who need it the most and to stop playing politics,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The Trump administration is back in the middle of the negotiations with a $916 billion plan. It would send a $600 direct payment to most Americans but eliminate a $300-per-week employment benefit favored by the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.