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Congress to pass shutdown-averting bill to continue coronavirus stimulus talks

Congress is poised to pass a stopgap funding measure that will avert a government shutdown and provide lawmakers more time to negotiate an emergency coronavirus stimulus legislation amid deepening economic pain.

Negotiations over a $1.4tn catch-all spending package are playing out alongside bipartisan efforts to pass long-delayed Covid-19 economic relief.

Congressional leaders hope to attach the stimulus bill to the must-pass spending bill, though several key sticking points remain.

On Monday, the Democratic House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said that the House would vote on Wednesday on a one-week spending bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to avoid a government shutdown while lawmakers race to reach an agreement. Government funding for federal agencies is due to expire on Friday.

Hoyer had initially told lawmakers that the House would finalize its end-of-year business this week, allowing lawmakers to leave Washington for the year, but negotiations over the omnibus spending bill were proceeding more slowly than he had hoped.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet reached agreement on government funding,” Hoyer wrote on Twitter. “The House will vote on Wednesday on a one-week CR to keep government open while negotiations continue.”

A bipartisan group of senators expressed optimism about a $908bn aid proposal to help alleviate the financial disaster facing millions of American families and businesses as a rise in coronavirus cases threatens the labor market, which has struggled to fully recover from the economic downturn that followed the pandemic’s arrival in March.

But their plan, the details of which could be released as early as Monday, remains hung up over provisions to aid states and localities, a Democratic priority, and liability protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits, which Republicans want.

The proposal is less than half of the $2.2tn relief package passed by the Democratic-controlled House in October and does not include the direct payments to Americans that Trump sought before the election.

Yet the senators’ plan is nearly double the $500bn package proposed by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who advocated a list of “targeted” relief provisions he said the president would sign.

Lawmakers quickly enacted a $3tn aid package to salvage the economy earlier this year, but they have been deadlocked for months over whether to approve another stimulus plan.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act immediately and endorsed the senators’ bipartisan framework, calling it a “down payment” that would provide immediate relief to those suffering the economic consequences of the virus. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, also tentatively expressed support, saying they would use the plan as a “framework” for their negotiations with Republican leaders, which are proceeding on a different track from the talks with the senators.

On Monday, the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the Trump administration and Congress were nearing an agreement on aid.

“We are moving in the right direction, I think,” Kudlow said in an online interview with the Washington Post. “We are getting closer.”

The US Chamber of Commerce said in a new memo to Congress that failure to enact relief would risk a “double-dip recession” – which occurs when a recession is followed by a brief recovery and then another recession – that would permanently shutter small businesses and leave millions of Americans with no means of support.

The same issues have blocked coronavirus relief legislation for months, leading to mounting frustrations among business owners, unions, state and local government officials, and ordinary Americans.

Considering the weakening of the economy coupled with a surge in Covid-19 cases at a time when previously approved relief mechanisms are due to expire, it would be “stupidity on steroids if Congress doesn’t act”, said the Democratic senator Mark Warner, a member of the bipartisan group that wrote the proposal, to CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

A group of emergency aid programs implemented in response to the pandemic, including additional unemployment benefits and a moratorium on renter evictions, is due to expire at the end of December.

With US coronavirus deaths topping 283,000 and pressure mounting for aid to a fragile economy, the new package is expected to include fresh emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployment benefits, and funding for Covid-19 vaccine distribution.

“We have to get something done for the American people,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Monday, “before the end of the year.”

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