WASHINGTON – A bill to fund the federal government cleared a key Senate procedural hurdle Tuesday as lawmakers sought to accomplish the bare minimum before they depart Washington to campaign — preventing a shutdown when the new fiscal year begins.
The measure to keep the government running through Dec. 11 advanced by a 82-6 tally. A final vote on Wednesday would send the stopgap spending bill to President Donald Trump in time for his signature before the new budget year starts Thursday.
The funding measure advanced while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made a last-ditch effort to strike an agreement on a separate COVID-19 rescue bill that has eluded them for weeks. The two spoke Tuesday for almost an hour, Pelosi's office said, and plan further discussions on Wednesday.
The two sides remain far apart on COVID relief, and neither side has publicly offered the kind of concessions that would generate tangible momentum. Pelosi and Mnuchin have worked effectively together in the past and were key forces on an earlier $2 trillion aid package that passed in March, but the bipartisan spirit that drove that measure into law has all but evaporated.
Republicans say they cannot stomach any agreement close to the $2.2 trillion bill that Democrats are pushing, and Pelosi has not been willing to offer greater concessions without Republicans giving more ground of their own.
If the talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin fizzle out, the California Democrat appears likely to call a vote on the scaled-back relief bill in the House. Party moderates have been pressing Pelosi to demonstrate greater flexibility and have been itching for legislation that actually becomes law rather than passing a partisan bill.
But Republicans immediately swung against Pelosi's bill, saying the liberal Speaker isn't serious. And even if Pelosi and Mnuchin were able to reach a tentative agreement on “top line" spending levels, dozens of nettlesome details would need to be worked out.
Pelosi has not budged an inch on a key demand of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who says he will not permit a vote on any relief bill that does not provide a liability shield for businesses, schools and universities that reopen as the pandemic rages on.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a former tea party lawmaker who has clashed with Pelosi in recent weeks, offered a non-committal assessment of the situation Tuesday as he escorted Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to the Capitol for her first round of meeting with GOP senators.
Meadows told reporters that he and Mnuchin "had a couple of conversations this morning. We also had a conversation with the president so hopefully we’ll make some progress and find a solution for the American people."
Pelosi's latest bill would revive a $600-per-week pandemic jobless benefit and send a second round of $1,200 direct payments to most individuals. It would scale back an aid package to state and local governments to a still-huge $436 billion, send a whopping $225 billion to colleges and universities and deliver another round of subsidies to businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program. Airlines would get another $25 billion in aid to prevent a wave of layoffs that are coming this week.
The proposal represents a cutback from a $3.4 billion bill that passed the House in May but remains well above what Senate Republicans are willing to accept. Republicans have endorsed staying in the $650 billion to $1 trillion range.
The stopgap spending bill, meanwhile, sets up a post-election lame-duck session with an agenda sure to be determined by the election results. A roster of 12 annual spending bills has not even started moving in the Senate. If Joe Biden wins the White House in November, it's likely that another stopgap measure would fund the government into next year.