Stopgap Readied Amid Year-End Budget, Virus Aid Scramble
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers were finalizing a one-week stopgap funding measure Tuesday to avoid a partial government shutdown starting Friday at midnight, with the only add-ons expected to be a package of expiring health care program extensions, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby.
The “clean” continuing resolution, as Shelby put it Tuesday, will extend current funding through Dec. 18. That would buy Congress an additional week to reach a coronavirus relief deal and pass an omnibus spending measure for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The House plans to vote on the stopgap bill on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his chamber would take it up “as soon as we get it.”
The push to buy time came as a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers struggled to pin down the details of a $908 billion coronavirus aid package that could become the basis for a compromise deal. The package is designed to last for about four months, by which time President-elect Joe Biden is expected to propose a more sweeping response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just getting an interim aid measure off the ground has proved a heavy lift, however. Talks have dragged in recent days, mostly over the details of how and whether to provide liability protection for employers against pandemic-related lawsuits.
A broad outline of the bipartisan plan released last week called for a “short-term” liability shield “with the purpose of giving states time to develop their own response.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R- Utah, a member of the bipartisan group, said lawmakers had a “general agreement” to propose a short-term moratorium on lawsuits that would “give states six months to come up with their own legislation” on liability protection.
The issue negotiators are trying to work through is how to deal with injuries that occurred in 2020. Romney’s initial proposal was to provide immunity except for cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct, but Democrats argue that exception is too narrow.
In what he called a “real advance” toward a compromise, Romney said Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., proposed giving defendants “an affirmative defense” to prevent excessive liability claims, instead of just allowing for lawsuits in cases of gross negligence.
Romney also said he favored creating health standards that employers must follow through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be protected from lawsuits.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D- Ill., another member of the group, said lawmakers had a “lively discussion” of the issue Monday night but reached no conclusion.
He said a six-month moratorium on lawsuits was “still part of the conversation,” with details yet to be ironed out. “The question is what happens during the six months and after,” he told reporters.
The outcome of the liability dispute was affecting plans to provide aid to cash-strapped state and local governments. Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas, said “it’s clear that Democrats want additional state and local money and Republicans by and large are asking for some common-sense liability provisions, and those are coupled together.”
The broad outline of the bipartisan plan called for $288 billion for small businesses, $180 billion in unemployment benefits, and $160 billion in aid to state and local governments, among other things.
Romney said the group had “made a lot of progress on state and local but there are a number of questions that are still unanswered.” He said there was general agreement to distribute 40% of the money directly to localities, but they hadn’t figured out the exact formula yet, including the mix of funds based on population or revenue shortfalls.
The bipartisan plan stops short of including a new round of tax rebate checks, which President Donald Trump has long favored. Sen. Josh Hawley, R- Mo., said he urged Trump to veto any aid package that did not include new tax rebates.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday said she favored adding direct payments to any emerging relief package, but that it was up to Trump to weigh in with Republicans for it. “I hope so. But that’s really up to the president if he would be agreeable to do that,” Pelosi told reporters. “But we’re all for it.”
Meanwhile Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R- Iowa, said talks were ongoing with House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D- Mass., about a package of tax, trade and pension provisions. He said no deals have been struck yet but that another meeting would likely take place Tuesday.
Grassley said an administration push to restore a provision dropped from the U.S.- Mexico- Canada trade pact implementing legislation that could subject manufacturers in “foreign trade zones” located near ports of entry to tariffs wasn’t resolved yet.
He said he favored the White House position, arguing leaving the provision out was unintentional, but that industry lobbying to maintain the status quo was fierce.
“It ought to be easy to resolve, because it was just an oversight that it wasn’t included” in the USMCA law, Grassley said. “Now that it wasn’t done, and some are taking advantage of it, they don’t want to give it up. So if we’d done it right in the first place, they wouldn’t have it. So it’s kind of an intellectually dishonest position.”
Critics of the provision argue that it was the White House that dropped the provision from its proposed implementing bill in the first place after stakeholders weighed in against it.
Grassley and Neal are also working towards a compromise to shore up cash-strapped union pension plans that could collapse in the coming years.
Grassley said no deal’s been reached yet after about 10 days of talks — though that could change any moment — but Republicans’ top concern is preventing the federal government from being a “perpetual backstop.”
Negotiations also continued on the underlying omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2021, but several sticking points remained unresolved, Shelby said Monday. He appeared hopeful about finding a compromise to Trump’s $2 billion request for border wall construction that Democrats oppose.
“I think there’s a way to work that out,” Shelby, R- Ala., told reporters.
Also unresolved was a dispute over whether to exempt from statutory spending limits about $12.5 billion to pay for a program that gives veterans access to private health care outside the VA system in certain circumstances. House Democrats and Senate Republicans want to exempt that money to allow for additional spending in other nondefense programs without breaching the spending caps.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Trump administration have resisted that plan based on fiscal concerns. Shelby said a potential compromise may involve exempting some of the veterans funding and leaving some of it under the spending caps.
“I just don’t believe we’ll turn our backs on the veterans. I don’t think the Senate nor the House would do that, and I don’t believe the president would do that,” Shelby said.
Shelby spoke with Pelosi on Monday about the emerging year-end package, including coronavirus relief. Despite recent snags, he said both sides are working towards a compromise.
“I had a nice conversation with the speaker about this, we went over a lot of stuff. I told her … we need to get this finished, get it across the line. As you know, she’s in a position to help get it done,” Shelby said. “The speaker says she wants to get it done.”
Roll Call’s Paul M. Krawzak, Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt and Doug Sword contributed to this report.
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