Virus relief package uncertain in post-election Congress

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks back to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Congress began a lame-duck session Monday facing uncertain odds for a new COVID-19 relief bill, with the split decision in the election empowering both President-elect Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while eroding the hardline negotiating posture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The outlook for legislation was also clouded by President Donald Trump's refusal to concede his defeat in the election. He was the chief GOP force pushing for the legislation this fall — at least when he thought it could assist his reelection — but his posture now is at best uncertain.

Having held their own in the election, Republicans controlling the Senate are poised to assert more influence. Republicans largely deferred to Trump's team during more than three months of long and frustrating negotiations when the White House appeared willing to accept a package of up to $2 trillion, even as they called for a smaller, more targeted bill.

“I'm glad that Sen. McConnell has determined that he'll be the chief negotiator for our side of the building," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who added that Pelosi “certainly should be more motivated to get a deal than maybe she was before the election.”

The renewed legislative maneuvering comes at pivotal moment in the pandemic, with surging COVID-19 caseloads across the country putting new strain on hospitals and raising fears of an economic slowdown. Biden on Monday quickly established an coronavirus advisory board and implored Americans to wear masks, saying action is needed to avoid a “dark winter.”

Biden also made clear he does not want to wait until January to get a relief package done.

“Although we are not in office yet, I’m just laying out what we expect to do and hope can be done, some of it, between now and the time we’re sworn in,” Biden said. “There’s a need for bold action to fight this pandemic. We’re still facing a very dark winter.”

Biden's victory in the election puts him in the driver's seat over Pelosi, whose ambitious pre-election demands for the virus package were rooted in assumptions of a sweeping Democratic victory that would expand her majority. Instead, the party suffered an unexpected loss of seats.

Now, the California Democrat may have to settle for a lot less than the $2 trillion-plus package the House passed before the election. That measure is loaded with Democratic agenda items like rental assistance and aid to state and local governments.

Apart from virus aid, lawmakers face a Dec. 11 deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown. At minimum, they must pass a stopgap spending measure to fund operations into the Biden administration.

McConnell says he wants the pass COVID relief in the lame-duck session, but he says any COVID relief must be targeted to a few areas like aid for businesses that have been especially slammed by the pandemic, funding for schools struggling with the virus, and help for the jobless. McConnell's other priorities for the session include a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill, annual passage of the defense authorization bill, and one final round of Trump's judicial nominees.

“I hope our Democratic colleagues will finally put aside their all or nothing obstruction and let the targeted pandemic relief — targeted pandemic relief is what we need — let it move forward," McConnell said Monday. “In any event, we will need to fund the government, reach agreement with the House on the national defense authorization act, and confirm more thoroughly qualified nominees."

At issue is a relief agenda that would provide another $1,200 direct payment to most Americans, restart bonus unemployment benefits, fund additional testing and vaccines, provide aid to schools and allocate money to state and local governments, a Democratic priority.

A $1.8 trillion rescue plan in March passed virtually unanimously but the two sides formed different opinions about the size and scope of another relief measure. Republicans urged caution about so much additional debt and have mostly followed Trump's lead as he's pressed to reopen the economy.

Democrats have so far said they won't accept a piecemeal approach in which popular GOP-backed items like paycheck protection subsidies for business advance but Democratic priorities like help for state and local governments would not.

Trump and many of his GOP allies have focused on loosening social and economic restrictions as the key to recovery instead of more taxpayer-funded help.

Senate Democrats have blocked a Senate GOP plan that McConnell brought to a vote last month. The measure contained more than $100 billion for schools, a $300-per-week supplemental unemployment insurance benefit, and more subsidies for businesses especially hard hit by pandemic-related downturns and closures. It did not include the $1,200 direct payments that are so important to Trump.