US Congress to vote on stopgap Bill as Covid-19 aid talks continue

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (pictured) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hope to attach long-awaited Covid-19 relief to a broad US$1.4 trillion spending Bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (pictured) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hope to attach long-awaited Covid-19 relief to a broad US$1.4 trillion spending Bill.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Congress will vote this week on a one-week stopgap funding Bill to provide more time for lawmakers to reach a deal on Covid-19 relief and an over-arching spending Bill to avoid a government shutdown.

Lawmakers in the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-run House of Representatives need to enact a government spending measure by Friday (Dec 11), when funding for federal agencies is set to expire.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hope to attach long-awaited Covid-19 relief to a broad US$1.4 trillion (S$1.87 trillion) spending Bill, known as an omnibus.  

Both sides are under mounting pressure to keep the government open and deliver a fresh infusion of coronavirus aid to families and businesses reeling from a pandemic that has killed 282,000 people in the United States and thrown millions out of work.

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

But with success eluding negotiations on both spending and pandemic relief, McConnell and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said separately on Monday that the two chambers would vote this week on a measure to allow an additional week of talks.

Mr Hoyer said in a tweet that the House would vote on Wednesday. Mr McConnell said the Senate would take up the stopgap government spending measure "as soon as we get it."

He has pushed for a new coronavirus aid package of about US$500 billion, while a bipartisan proposal that emerged a week ago totaled US$908 billion. 

"We have seen some hopeful signs of engagement from our Democratic colleagues. But we have no reason to think the underlying disagreements about policy are going to evaporate overnight," Mr McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Arguing for a "targeted" package, Mr McConnell said lawmakers agree on three points - extending unemployment benefits, helping small businesses and funding vaccines. He said lawmakers should "make law in the many places where we have common ground" and drop other demands.

A few minutes later on the Senate floor, Mr Schumer said he was tired of hearing the "same old song" from Mr McConnell.

Mr Schumer and Ms Pelosi last week embraced the emerging US$908 billion bipartisan framework as a basis for talks, abandoning the Democrats'months-long insistence on at least double that amount.

A group of House and Senate lawmakers had been expected as early as Monday to issue a text of the bipartisan Covid-19 aid Bill, which would provide economic support in the early days of President-elect Joe Biden's administration beginning on Jan 20.

But lawmakers and their staff failed to finalise it over the weekend. They were stalled on provisions to help state and local governments, which Democrats want, and protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a top Republican priority.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who is involved in bipartisan Covid-19 relief negotiations, said lawmakers could drop both business protections and state and local aid to get a deal done.

"That’s a possibility," he told reporters on Capitol Hill. 

In separate spending talks, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said he urged Ms Pelosi on Monday to focus areas where the two sides agree.

"Look, there are a lot of things in your Bill that we’re not going to take," Mr Shelby said he told the speaker. Ms Pelosi’s office was not immediately available for comment. 

In a letter to House Democrats, Ms Pelosi said the spending negotiations were "making progress."

There was an upbeat note, however, from the Trump administration.

"We are moving in the right direction, I think. We are getting closer," White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in an online interview with The Washington Post.

The US Chamber of Commerce said in a memo to Congress that failure to enact relief would risk a "double-dip recession" - 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 frustration among business owners, unions, ordinary Americans and state and local government officials.