Congress returned Monday from its Thanksgiving break hoping to avoid a government shutdown looming at the end of next week — with President Donald Trump being a potential wild card.
Hopes for a new coronavirus stimulus package are slim as lawmakers focus on the more limited goal of keeping the government open into next year with a must-pass $1.4 trillion spending measure.
Even that could prove tricky because of the outgoing man in the White House.
Trump may seek to use the talks as a way to flex his political muscle and show he remains relevant despite losing the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
And he has little reason to care about the usual political backlash against the White House that usually greets a shutdown.
The president may demand more spending on his pet project, the wall along the border with Mexico, even though he knows that is more than likely a deal-breaker for Democrats.
Trump may also insist on rejecting a provision that is popular on both sides of the aisle to give new names to military bases named after Confederate war heroes.
At issue are the 12 annual spending bills comprising the portion of the government’s budget that passes through Congress each year on a bipartisan basis. Whatever approach passes, it’s likely to contain a batch of unfinished leftovers such as extending expiring health care policies and tax provisions and continuing the authorization for the government’s flood insurance program.
So what about a COVID relief package?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., struck an optimistic note.
“There is no reason — none — that we shouldn’t deliver another major pandemic relief package,” McConnell said.
But reaching a deal remains a long shot despite the need for new aid to unemployed workers, struggling small businesses and state and local governments groaning under the unbudgeted burden of billions in additional spending to counter the pandemic.
Democrats have battled with Republicans and the White House for months over the scope and priorities in such a deal.
McConnell insisted on no more than $500 billion and a measure that would shield businesses from lawsuits if they expose workers or customers to COVID-19.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, may have overplayed her hand as she held out for more than $2 trillion right up until the presidential election, which she hoped would result in a win for Congressional Democrats as well as Biden.
But Democrats failed so far to retake the Senate and lost seats in the House, leaving her with little leverage.
Before the election, Trump was gung-ho for a big stimulus package, especially one that would include a new round of $1,200 checks with his name on them to American taxpayers.
Now that he lost, the president seems to have lost interest in the issue and has barely mentioned it in recent weeks.
He seems more likely to dig in his heels in a spat over military bases named for Confederate leaders in the Civil War, which threatens to upset the annual passage of a defense policy measure that has passed for 59 years in a row on a bipartisan basis.
The measure is critical in the defense policy world, guiding Pentagon policy and cementing decisions about troop levels, new weapons systems and military readiness, military personnel policy and other military goals.
Both the House and Senate measures would require the Pentagon to rename bases such as Fort Benning and Fort Hood.
The battle erupted this summer amid widespread racial protests, and Trump used the debate to appeal to his base of right-wing white Southern voters.
He may see it as a wedge issue that could help the GOP hold onto two critical Senate seats at stake in a Jan. 5 double-barreled runoff election.
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