It’s almost the end of the year and Congress is, once again, staring down several major deadlines.
First and foremost, the increasingly severe pandemic means there’s huge pressure to pass more coronavirus relief prior to December 31, when multiple aid programs — including unemployment insurance coverage for 12 million people — are poised to expire.
Second, the deadline to approve an annual government funding package is fast approaching on December 11, with lawmakers expected to pass another one-week extension.
And finally, Congress still needs to pass the National Defense Authorization Act — which sets up a yearly budget for the military — a move that’s been complicated by President Donald Trump’s threats to veto it over frustrations with lawmakers regarding a separate issue.
All three bills are key priorities during the lame-duck term, as failing to pass them would leave millions to wrestle with a dire financial situation, force the government to shut down, and cause potential delays in the Defense Department’s planning for the year to come. But it’s unclear how much lawmakers will be able to get done within the roughly two weeks the legislature will be in session before the end of the year.
The future of a stimulus bill is perhaps the most uncertain, though there are still outstanding conflicts on government funding and the NDAA as well. Developments in the coming week, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s receptiveness to a bipartisan stimulus proposal, will be key to watch when it comes to the prospects for additional relief.
“We have a lot of work to do. And just a few days to do it,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted this past weekend during an appearance on ABC’s This Week.
Here’s a rundown of Congress’s to-do list before lawmakers leave for the year.
There’s huge pressure to pass more stimulus
There’s a lot of pressure on lawmakers to get more stimulus done during the lame-duck session, something that’s only grown since the release of sluggish jobs numbers in November, which showed much slower job growth than the previous month. Additionally, a new bill is sorely needed to extend relief programs that are otherwise scheduled to expire on December 31.
Multiple programs could sunset if no new stimulus is passed: Unemployment insurance (UI) coverage for millions of Americans is slated to end ahead of January 2021, barring additional legislative action. Federal eviction protections are due to expire unless Congress or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approve an extension. And relief for student loan holders could also be in jeopardy soon.
These provisions were all set up earlier this year with specific end dates: Programs that increased UI access for gig economy workers and longer-term unemployed workers are both scheduled to end by December 31, which could mean that roughly 12 million people will abruptly stop receiving UI.
An eviction moratorium covering tenants in federally assisted housing was also included in the CARES Act, a prior stimulus package passed by Congress in March, though it lapsed earlier this year. Since then, the CDC has implemented an eviction moratorium that covers a wide set of renters through December 31.
An extension is needed to keep it going and potentially prevent millions of evictions in the new year. As Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas has reported, the need for rental assistance in any stimulus package is also critical to addressing the financial shortfalls that both renters and landlords are facing. This sort of assistance is currently being weighed in a bipartisan proposal as well.
The CARES Act had also deferred federal student loan payments until September, a proposal that Trump extended through December 31 in an executive action. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has since extended this deferment for another month until January 31, 2021, and she’s pushed Congress to approve a longer one.
New stimulus is vital both to maintain these existing programs and to provide added support to small businesses and households trying to cope with the financial effects of the pandemic. A bipartisan $908 billion Senate proposal that’s gained traction would allocate $180 billion to expand weekly unemployment insurance payments, $160 billion to state and local governments to cover funding for social service programs, including K-12 education, and $288 billion in more aid for small businesses.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the senators involved in the bipartisan proposal, said on a Sunday appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press that “we looked at everything that was going to terminate by the end of December,” and tried to find ways to extend sunsetting programs.
Lawmakers are still mulling over the final language, but if both Republican and Democratic leadership gets on board, this stimulus proposal could be added to a government funding package that Congress needs to get done this month as well.
Congress must pass funding to keep the government open
Passage of a government funding bill comes down to the wire pretty much every year — and that’s been no different in 2020.
Lawmakers approved a continuing resolution this past September in order to give themselves more time to negotiate on the measure, and that extension will expire on December 11.
At this point, it’s likely that Congress will approve another short-term funding bill that will provide federal agencies with enough funds to allow lawmakers to continue negotiations through December 18, according to two Democratic aides. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has announced that the lower chamber will vote on this continuing resolution on Wednesday.
Lawmakers from both parties have previously signaled that they are focused on avoiding another government shutdown like the one that left hundreds of thousands of workers without pay for 35 days in late 2018 and early 2019, though there are still outstanding disagreements on a couple different points. According to USA Today, one of the central areas of contention involves a Republican request for money for a border wall and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.
Hammering out these issues by December 18 will be important to ensure that the government stays open and negotiations are completed ahead of the start of a new congressional term.
Trump’s issues with the NDAA could complicate its passage
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is another bill lawmakers are trying to approve prior to the end of this year.
While the bill — which establishes funding allocations for the defense department — has strong backing in both the House and the Senate, the major pushback it’s getting at this point is driven by Trump, who has threatened to veto it because it does not include a repeal of Section 230 protections for tech companies. This provision currently protects social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google from liability for content that’s posted on their sites by third parties.
.....Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2020
Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has stated that a Section 230 repeal will not be included in the bill because of the bipartisan opposition it faces, and the likelihood that the bill would fail if it was added in.
“It’s unfortunate that Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle disagree with the need for a full repeal — but, because of that, it is impossible to add a repeal of Section 230 to the defense authorization bill,” Inhofe previously said in a statement.
Trump had also said he’d veto the bill over an issue he and some Republican lawmakers had with the legislation, a problem lawmakers have now addressed. House Democrats were pushing for a provision in the NDAA that would rename military bases named after Confederate leaders within the span of one year. A new compromise version of the bill now would establish a commission that would determine how to handle the renaming of these bases over three years, something that Trump also supports, according to Inhofe.
The House has already scheduled a vote for the bill on Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to hold a vote as well later this week.
The main question now is whether Trump will follow through with a veto over the Section 230 issue, and if he does, how Congress will respond. Thus far, Congress has yet to marshal enough votes to override one of Trump’s vetoes, though some Republicans have voted to override vetoes on other legislation in the past.
But even if they are successful in doing so now, navigating this potential difficulty would be just one of several issues Congress must contend with before the end of its term this December.