Congress returns to Washington to salvage stimulus deal

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Congress will return to Washington this week with one goal: to clean up a legislative mess of President Donald Trump’s making.

The House and Senate must sort out a to-do list that includes a stalled $900 billion stimulus package and a potential government shutdown. More than $2 trillion is at stake, including badly needed pandemic aid for programs like unemployment and food assistance. To top it off, Congress will vote on a presidential veto override — the first of Trump’s presidency.

It could be one of the most pivotal weeks of the year in Washington, though just weeks ago, few lawmakers planned to return to Washington for a rare work period between Christmas and New Year’s.

“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said on “Fox News Sunday” of Trump’s demand for larger stimulus checks.

“You don’t get everything you want, even if you’re the president of the United States,” he said. Toomey also suggested that most Republicans won’t support the $2,000 checks the president wants because it’s “terribly untargeted.”

The House is returning Monday after Trump made good on his threat to veto a $741 billion defense policy bill on Dec. 23 over his objections to renaming military bases honoring Confederate leaders as well as online liability protections, requiring lawmakers to take action before the end of the 116th Congress. The Senate is expected to return Tuesday.

But Congress’ return to Capitol Hill took on far more urgency after Trump suddenly blew up an already-passed package of coronavirus relief and government funding, which caught many in Washington by surprise. Both the defense bill and the spending package passed Congress by veto-proof majorities. Congress sent the massive spending package to Trump Thursday.

Trump has refused to say whether he will actually veto or sign the stimulus deal, leaving Congress uncertain about whether it will need to muscle through another stopgap funding bill. The $600 stimulus checks that were once expected to reach Americans by this week are now, too, in doubt, along with hundreds of billions in other assistance. Meanwhile, unemployment programs established earlier this year expired over the weekend.

Trump spent the weekend railing against the current package, tweeting that he wants to “increase payments to the people, get rid of the ‘pork’” and “$2000 + $2000 plus other family members. Not $600. Remember, it was China’s fault!”

Perhaps the most pressing matter for congressional leaders on Monday, besides the planned vote to override Trump’s veto of the defense bill, will be government funding. Without further action by Trump, House members will vote on a short-term funding bill to avert a midnight shutdown, though party leaders are still discussing how long that bill would last.

With the stimulus deal still in limbo, Democrats will also vote on a measure that would boost direct payments to Americans to $2,000, as Trump has demanded, instead of the $600 already included, forcing Republicans to go on the record against the president.

“To vote against this bill is to deny the financial hardship that families face and to deny them the relief they need,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said previously in a statement.

And on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who had pressed for higher stimulus checks, urged Trump to sign the bill, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that “the suffering of this country will be immense” if the president fails to sign the bill before the shutdown deadline.

But even if the House passes $2,000 stimulus checks, the GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to take up the legislation. The chamber will hold a pro forma session Monday morning and is scheduled to return Tuesday to begin the process of overriding Trump’s veto of the annual defense bill.

It’s the latest hurdle for the 116th Congress, which began with an epic 35-day government shutdown and could potentially end with another one — all while confronting the twin public health and economic crises resulting from the pandemic.

Party leaders were forced to make plans quickly after Trump called the coronavirus package a “disgrace” and demanded $1,400 more per stimulus check. But several noted that Trump has also expressed frustration with legislation that he then proceeded to sign, including a $1.3 trillion spending bill in 2018.

In a video message last week, Trump criticized the stimulus bill for “wasteful spending,” even though he previously approved the spending levels. In an effort to appease the president, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested revisiting funding levels for state and foreign operations, but Senate Republicans don’t appear to have much appetite for renegotiation.

“Frankly if you start opening part of the bill up, it’s hard to defend not opening the whole bill up,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), the No. 4 GOP leader. “It took us a long time to get to where we are, I think, reopening that bill would be a mistake.”

Trump’s eleventh hour demands come after he largely stayed out of negotiations, leaving much of the deal making to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The president is instead focusing on a futile effort to overturn the results of Nov. 3 election and is lashing out at Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) for recognizing Joe Biden as president-elect.

Yet some in leadership sounded a hopeful note.

“We’re not going to let the government shut down, nor are we going to let the American people down,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Christmas Eve. “We are considering our options and what steps we will take.”

“We can only do in the House what we can do. We will have a new president in less than 30 days,” Hoyer added.

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