Nicholas Wu and Christal Hayes USA TODAY
Published 12:35 PM EDT Sep 14, 2020
WASHINGTON — The House is set to return from a monthlong recess Monday, launching a congressional sprint on a number of must-pass bills to avert a government shutdown.
Both the House and Senate only have several weeks left in session before the November election. The small window, meshed with essential legislation, a global pandemic and a presidential election, has left Congress with a jam-packed schedule. The House also aims to tackle topics beyond the expected, like the federal legalization of marijuana.
Here’s what to expect this month once the House is back in the nation’s capital:
Optimism on Capitol Hill has faded fast. Americans weathering the deep-rooted impacts of the coronavirus pandemic appear increasingly unlikely to see any additional financial relief from Congress before the November election.
After passing a series of bills totaling more than $3 trillion to help blunt COVID-19, congressional leaders have so far been unable to find a bipartisan compromise on another batch of aid for unemployed Americans, schools and businesses. Top Democrats and White House negotiators spent weeks attempting to broker a deal, only leading to both sides largely digging in their heels and blaming one another for the prolonged impasse.
Last week, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican $300 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill. That further dampened prospects Congress will pass additional pandemic aid. After the chamber failed to move forward on the measure, a host of lawmakers voiced skepticism that any movement would be made on such a package until voters cast their ballots.
Senate stimulus plan: Senate Democrats block $300 billion coronavirus stimulus package, leaving little hope for relief before November
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Friday in Kentucky that the outlook appeared grim.
“I wish I could tell you we were going to get another package, but it doesn’t look that good right now,” he said.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have not closed the door to more aid passing, insisting that the failure would force both sides back to the negotiating table. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said all hope was not lost yet, though “it looks that way.”
“You know, you never know around here. Sometimes things look bleak and they revive, and so forth,” he told reporters.
The impasse has not been helpful to those in tight November races and moderate Democrats in the House, many of whom have attempted to pushed/ a public pressure campaign to take up a smaller bill to quickly get financial relief to families and the unemployed.
A senior Democratic aide associated with the moderate wing of the party, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the moderate Blue Dog Coalition reached out to House Democratic leadership and said it wanted a vote on a negotiated stimulus deal by the end of the session.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the chair of the House Budget Committee and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told USA TODAY one way to help break the impasse and pressure Senate Republicans would be to pass individual parts of the stimulus, such as a boost to unemployment benefits or action on evictions.
Doing so would “force them to take action on what we do” and give them another option, Yarmuth said.
Congress may be able to compromise on a lower amount for aid to state and local governments. Democrats have made providing funds to struggling state and local governments a priority since spring, but Republicans have roundly opposed the idea.
Under the Heroes Act, the House Democratic plan passed in May, Yarmuth said the city government in Louisville, Kentucky, would have gotten aid “far in excess of what the crisis has cost in revenue,” he said. “We can help the state and local governments in a very important way at far less cost than we had in Heroes.” But amid the impasse, “I don’t think we’re losing the messaging battle on this, but I don’t think we’re winning it either,” he said, adding it could look bad for Democrats to leave at the end of the session with a stimulus plan unresolved.
“It’s not good government to leave without doing anything,” he said, noting Democrats would look much better if they did “something responsible, and reasonable.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, is hopeful a deal is possible. She said in a Friday CNN interview she is “completely optimistic” about a compromise.
“I do think that we should have an agreement,” she said. “That’s what we all want.”
Avoiding a government shutdown
In a little over two weeks, the federal government will shut down if Congress does not pass a series of annual bills.
Pelosi and the Trump administration came to an informal deal that would extend government funding at the current operatinglevels. It’s still unclear how long the bills will extend to and when exactly they will be taken up in both chambers. The government will shut down on Sept. 30 unless Congress passes a continuing resolution and the president signs off.
Pelosi and McConnell have both shot down ideas to add COVID-19 relief to the spending legislation, measures that are likely to be some of the last bills to become law before the election. “Those negotiations are separate from this,” Pelosi said when asked Thursday.
Informal deal: White House and Congress reach informal deal to avert a government shutdown at end of month
The addition of coronavirus programs, such as unemployment benefits, could add more uncertainty over a potential government shutdown – something that experts say could have untested consequences amid a global pandemic in which Americans are relying on government programs and agencies.
Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said it would be a “catastrophic blow” to have a shutdown in the middle of the pandemic, especially if workers at agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health were furloughed.
US Postal Service
House Democrats will continue to escalate their confrontation with the U.S. Postal Service when they return. A congressional panel is set to hold a hearing Monday on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s alleged conflicts of interest and how his leadership could “jeopardize the Postal Service and the mail-in voting process for the 2020 election.”
No current postal officials are set to testify, but among the witnesses are S. David Fineman, the former chairman of the Postal Board of Governors, the body overseeing the agency, and former Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel. Both are Democrats.
Democratic lawmakers have opened several investigations into the Postal Service, most recently into allegations DeJoy pressured employees at his former company into giving political donations to Republicans and helped reimburse the cost – a potential campaign finance violation. Democratic lawmakers allege DeJoy, a major Republican donor, has conflicts of interest in running the agency and argue delays and operational changes at the Postal Service during his tenure threaten the agency’s ability to handle an expected surge of mail-in ballots this fall.
More: House committee to investigate Postmaster General DeJoy over political donations to GOP candidates
More: Senate report finds ‘significant’ prescription drug delivery delays under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy
DeJoy testified twice before lawmakers in August, acknowledging delays in the mail across the country but pledging to deliver all election mail on time. In testimony, DeJoy slammed what he called a “false narrative” that Postal Service changes had been made to disrupt the election, and he defended his changes as necessary to support the agency’s finances.
Under criticism from both sides, DeJoy suspended some operational changes in August but said he would resume cost-cutting measures, including the effort to improve delivery times, until after the election Nov. 3.
Marijuana and anti-discrimination bills
In addition to a COVID-19 relief bill and government funding, the House plans to address a slate of legislation addressing Democratic priorities, though they are unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
One bill allowing the federal legalization of marijuana, the MORE Act, is set for a vote during the week of Sept. 21. The timing of the vote – in the last month of congressional activity before the election – is already causing consternation among moderate Democrats who would prefer the House’s attention be directed to other issues, according to the senior aide.
The bill would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it would still be up to states to pass their own regulations on the sale of marijuana.
The MORE Act is likely to pass the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told USA TODAY earlier this month, though it is unlikely to make progress in the Senate. The bill only has one Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who said he objected to parts of the bill that were akin, in his view, to “reparations,” but would still vote for it.
Also on the agenda are several bills addressing diversity in education, protections for pregnant workers, intelligence reauthorization, and the condemnation of anti-Asian bigotry and bias amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published 12:35 PM EDT Sep 14, 2020