- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2020

Lawmakers on Thursday were staring another government shutdown in the eye as they tried to wrap up negotiations on a year-end spending package that would fund the government for 2021 and also deliver another round of cash for coronavirus relief.

Optimism over a deal waxed and waned throughout the day as leaders worked through thorny pandemic issues such as how much food-assistance money to approve, how to prevent new emergency management money for the states from becoming a slush fund, and how big to make the next round of stimulus checks.

That package — likely in the $900 billion range — is to be coupled with the spending bill to fund basic government operations for fiscal 2021, at a $1.4 trillion price tag.

But current government funding expires at the end of Friday, and without a deal in sight, House and Senate leaders were facing the choice of trying to push through another short-term stopgap bill or allowing a short shutdown.

“There may be a partial lapse,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat.

A weekend shutdown wouldn’t be too noticeable, but should it drag into the new work week, it could begin to bite.

The challenge leaders faced, though, is that adding additional time to push back the spending deadline could also remove the impetus for getting a deal done.

“We need the pressure to get this done, and hope that pressure will continue to build toward midnight tomorrow night,” said Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber.

He said the coronavirus relief negotiations have become “a little bit of whack-a-mole,” where they’ll settle one issue, but the solution sparks a new dispute somewhere else. “There’s a lot of interaction between the moving parts,” Mr. Thune said.

One moving part is the stimulus checks.

A strange alliance of Sen. Bernard Sanders, Sen. Josh Hawley and President Trump all pushed to add another round of direct checks, forcing the issue onto the lap of negotiators, who appear to have conceded the point.

But the size of the checks is still being debated, with negotiators circling around a $600 figure. Mr. Hawley is holding out for $1,200 and said he might object to a short-term spending bill unless the dollar amount rises.

Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, is also pushing a provision that would explicitly terminate the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs at the end of this year. The Treasury Department has already announced it will wind down the programs, but Democrats say that’s an attempt to tie the incoming Biden administration’s hands.

Congress passed three coronavirus bills in quick succession in March, but save for a new infusion of cash over the summer for a small-business relief fund, lawmakers have been unable to find agreement on another package.

Democrats object to GOP demands for liability protections for businesses looking to reopen, saying businesses shouldn’t get a free pass.

Meanwhile, Republicans don’t want to approve hundreds of billions of dollars that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to ship to states and local governments. Republicans say they fear most of the money would have nothing to do with the pandemic and just be a bailout for badly-run states.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is the top Republican in the talks, said Thursday night that they were “close” to settling things, but told colleagues they would be in session through the weekend.

He also fretted some of his colleagues were using the bill as leverage to get their own priorities.

“We must not slide into treating these talks like routine negotiations to be conducted at Congress’s routine pace,” he said. “We’re staying right here until COVID relief is out the door.”

The spending side, meanwhile, will be easy to finalize once the coronavirus package is done, said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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