Economic relief talks descend into disarray as congressional bickering intensifies

Congressional bickering over a new economic relief package escalated on Thursday, as lawmakers traded blame and put negotiations over critical legislation on the brink of collapse.

And the finger pointing even threatened to imperil a must-pass spending bill in the Senate, as lawmakers were still unsure if they would be able to pass a measure by a deadline Friday night to avert a government shutdown.

The devolving situation came as multiple lawmakers appeared to be pursuing conflicting goals all at once, with little time to sort out disagreements. The House passed a spending bill Wednesday to fund the government for one week and avoid a shutdown deadline Friday night. The Senate must pass an identical bill—and have President Donald Trump sign it—to avoid a shutdown, but they still weren’t sure how to do that with unanimous consent as of Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested on Thursday that discussions over emergency legislation could stretch beyond Christmas, even though multiple critical programs expire at the end of this month and there are fresh signs the economy is weakening. The Labor Department on Thursday announced that 853,000 Americans filed jobless claims last week, a big increase from the week before, a sign that the economy could be sliding backwards as new coronavirus cases pile up.

Staffers for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also told leadership offices in both parties on Wednesday night that McConnell sees no possible path for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to reach an agreement on two contentious provisions that would be broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans, according to a senior Democrat familiar with the negotiations.

McConnell has repeatedly emphasized that he believes more assistance is needed to help the economy, but he has framed the emerging bipartisan package as unworkable.

His staffers warned that Senate Republicans would reject the group’s potential agreements on a temporary liability shield for businesses, as well as on aid to state and local governments — provisions that have complicated talks for months. The senior Democrat spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell reiterated his demand for a broad liability shield for businesses and institutions vulnerable to coronavirus-related lawsuits and accused Democrats of “bullying small business owners and college presidents who’ve been pleading for these protections for months.”

“I hope our colleagues let Congress deliver more help soon,” he said. “A lot of Americans simply cannot afford to wait.”

Several other signals suggested progress on providing emergency relief had petered out. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave a fierce denunciation of McConnell’s proposed compromise measure to cut both state and local aid and the liability shield out of the deal.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said House lawmakers would be sent home to their districts until a compromise measure is reached. It was unclear if Senate Republicans would be able to on Thursday approve legislation to keep the federal government for an additional week before it shuts down on Saturday.

The sudden disarray came just days after a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers had hinted they were making major progress in brokering a targeted $908 billion stimulus plan, which would include some liability protections for businesses, new unemployment aid, and assistance for states and cities. Pelosi and Schumer had called the proposal encouraging and wanted to use it as the starting point for talks.

The bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers trying to break the logjam on stimulus was yet to announce a compromise on either the liability shield or the state and local aid funding. It has only issued the framework of an agreement, leaving many of the thorniest details unresolved.

Discussions were set to continue through the day Thursday, people familiar with the talks said, in hopes to striking at least a tentative deal by the end of the week.

But McConnell’s message to his counterparts Wednesday, as well as a Schumer speech Thursday casting doubt on whether combining state and local aid with liability shields is a fair tradeoff, cast doubt on whether the bipartisan group’s efforts could serve as the basis for a final deal.

“From everything I can pick up on, things are in a stalemate today,” said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. “But the desire is still there to get something put together on both sides. It’s always darkest before the sun rises.”

The pandemic is dealing severe blows to sectors of the American economy and widespread distribution of a coronavirus vaccine remains months away.

At her press conference, Pelosi emphasized that President-elect Joe Biden would soon be sworn in and vowed that lawmakers could not go home until a deal had been reached.

“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. “I would hope that it would honor the December 18th deadline. … We’ve been here after Christmas, you know.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}