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Congress scrambles to provide COVID relief, government funding

The U.S may narrowly avoid another federal shutdown Friday as members of Congress scrambled to reach an agreement over government funding and COVID relief. Judy Woodruff spoke with Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Down to the wire.

    The U.S. may narrowly avoid another federal government shutdown this Friday night in December, as members of Congress still don't have agreement over long-term funding, and they continue to struggle with a new round of COVID relief.

    With just hours to go, we get the latest now from our Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, hello to both of you.

    And, Lisa, they have been negotiating for day after day. Tell us, where do things stand? What is the holdup?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is among the more strange negotiations I have seen in Congress. There's both urgency, Judy, and hesitancy.

    Let's look at what the sticking points right now are that are holding up this COVID relief package. Right at the top of that list is the Federal Reserve itself, Federal Reserve powers that it has now for pandemic relief dealing with the markets. Those are set to expire at the end of this year. Some Republicans are worried that the Fed may try to use those powers next year.

    They're adding language to try and block that. Democrats say that is actually a problem for the Biden administration and that Republicans are going too far. This is the biggest block of the deal right now. It's why I'm spending so long talking about it.

    But there are others too. There are still limits on — limits about food relief that could go out that some conservatives in the House are nervous about, as well as a $90 billion fund proposed for FEMA that could help states. But there are some questions about how that's distributed.

    Let's talk about what we think will be in this package, direct checks in some form. Also, we expect some unemployment help and a lot of help for small businesses. The reason that we even have a potential deal is because of bipartisan work earlier this month and last month.

    And those bipartisan senators and House members, Judy, tonight are urging House and Senate leaders to get this deal done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, remind us. While they are still haggling over this, having a hard time, remind us what this means for the people who — Americans out there who need help.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, there is one thing I can report, which is that some of the food aid that is set to expire from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on December 31, even if it gets renewed, there will be a lag in trying to process the next extension of it.

    So, some food banks could suffer, regardless of what Congress does. But I also want to talk about Congress now coming close to this shutdown deadline tonight.

    Let's look right now at the House floor. Right now, members of Congress are voting on a two-day funding bill just to get them through the weekend, so they can finish negotiations.

    And if you break down what's happening here, the deadline for funding our government is 11:59 tonight. That's in East Coast time. And then that's the two-day funding bill they want. Now, here's the thing. After the House passes it, the Senate must also pass it. All senators must agree.

    Right now, it does look like that is going to happen by midnight, but we're watching it closely.

  • Judy Woodruff :

    And I know you will continue to keep a close eye on it.

    Meantime, Yamiche, as they are continuing to negotiate on Capitol Hill, where's the president in all this? We haven't heard from him on this topic. What has he been up to?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's sort of a remarkable situation.

    As Lisa is talking about the fact that there's urgency and hesitation on Capitol Hill. What you see from President Trump is really anger coursing through him. He's focused on his own political future. He's focused on the fact that he has lost the 2020 election, and he's trying to figure out ways to try to win back the 2020 election that we should note has now been over four weeks.

    The president is not at all involved in these COVID negotiations. He's not at all involved in selling the American people on the idea that the vaccine is safe. Instead, what the president's doing is tweeting. He's going after perceived political enemies, including at points Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said and congratulated Joe Biden on becoming the president-elect.

    On the negotiations, the White House says, well, there is Secretary Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary. He's been in negotiations on Capitol Hill. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, he's also been up on Capitol Hill.

    But it goes to show that there have been months of negotiations. And the president has sort of taken a step back from this. Another thing to note is that the coronavirus vaccine is something that all leaders across the aisle are trying to sell to the American people now, trying to educate them about the safety and the real impact that the virus is having on America and the fact that the vaccine, they see, as — is key to fighting this virus.

    We saw Vice President Mike Pence be inoculated with the vaccine today. We saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, so many others. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to get the vaccine sometime next month — sometime next week, rather, as well as vice president-elect Harris.

    But the president hasn't gotten the vaccine. And the White House won't even tell us when he's going to get it. Instead, all they will say is that he's open to the vaccine. A lot of critics of the president are saying this is really a dereliction of duty on the president's part.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, Yamiche, I know you have also been watching closely the transition to the Biden administration. We understand there's been friction now between the Pentagon and the Biden — incoming Biden team. Tell us about that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    The transition had been going fairly smoothly. And then, today, there's a big stumbling block. The headline is that the acting secretary of defense, Chris Miller, he issued a directive to all Pentagon officials, saying do not at all negotiator do not at all work with the Biden transition, a halt, what's happened.

    This was the statement, though, that he said. A few minutes after that, after the news was breaking, he said — quote — "After the mutually agreed upon holiday pause, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings. I remain committed to a full and transparent transition."

    The big problem is that the Biden campaign says he's simply not telling the truth. Here is what the executive director of the Biden transition team said:

  • Yohannes Abraham:

    Let me be clear. There was no mutually agreed upon holiday break. In fact, we think it's important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period, as there's no time to spare. And that's particularly true in the aftermath of the ascertainment delay.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, what you see there is the Biden team saying that we have not at all agreed to stop this, and, actually, time is of the essence.

    I'm also talking to sources who say that there are pockets of resistance in other parts of the Trump transition team, including at the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Office of Budget and Management.

    The problem here is that the president, sources tell me, is not providing the leadership that you saw in other presidents, including President Obama and President Bush, the 41 and 43.

    Most of the time, presidents say they are taking the lead, saying, your staff needs to really work on this transition. But the president just simply has not done that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to follow.

    We thank you both, Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins. Thank you.

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