Senate to Vote on Spending Stopgap as COVID-19 Aid Debate Continues

WASHINGTON (Reuters) —
The Capitol is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Senate is expected to vote as early as Thursday on a one-week extension of federal government funding to provide more time for legislators to work out a larger spending package including coronavirus relief, if lawmakers can reach a deal after months of argument.

The Democratic-majority House voted 343-67 on the stopgap measure on Wednesday. If passed and signed by President Donald Trump, it would prevent federal programs from running out of money on Friday at midnight by extending current funding levels until Dec. 18.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said the Senate will take it up this week and send it to Trump in time to avoid a government shutdown.

The move gives Congress seven more days to enact a broader, $1.4 trillion “omnibus” spending measure for all government agencies from the Pentagon to national parks.

The pandemic has roared back to levels surpassing those seen early in the crisis, with more than 200,000 new infections reported each day and fresh shutdowns in some areas. More than 286,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far, and millions have been thrown out of work.

Congressional leaders hope to attach a long-awaited COVID-19 relief package, the first since $3 trillion in aid was approved last spring to help mitigate pandemic-related shutdowns, job losses and other hardships. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked Wednesday evening how long it might take to reach agreement, said, “I’m hoping soon.”

But agreement has remained elusive as proposals and counterproposals on COVID-19 aid have flown around the U.S. Capitol this week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, McConnell, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both the House and Senate have all put ideas on the table.

But the thorniest issues – business liability protections sought by Republicans and aid to state and local governments sought by Democrats – have yet to be agreed on.

Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer say they view the bipartisan group negotiations as the best hope for a COVID-19 deal.

But Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, told reporters Wednesday that “the real negotiations” on COVID-19 relief will take place between congressional leaders and need to get underway.

“I hope it happens soon, because we don’t have a lot of time,” Thune said. He said the bipartisan group has provided a good foundation.

That group released a summary of their $908 billion proposal Wednesday. It would provide an extra $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for 16 weeks, from the end of December into April. It also includes money for small businesses, for vaccine distribution, health-care and education providers, transportation, and rental assistance.

While the summary said there was agreement in principle on liability issues and $160 billion in aid to state and local government, it did not give details, and lawmakers said they were still working on them.

McConnell on Tuesday proposed dropping those two issues for now in order to agree on a plan. But Schumer and Pelosi refused.

Mnuchin presented a $916 billion relief proposal Tuesday evening to Pelosi that includes money for state and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

But Pelosi and Schumer said the administration’s plan should not be allowed to obstruct the bipartisan group’s talks. They and other Democrats also asked why Mnuchin’s plan lacked supplementary benefits for the unemployed, who are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, while including direct checks of $600 for all individuals.

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