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Congress stumbles over Covid relief and passes two-day bill to avert shutdown

Trump signed the stopgap bill hours after the Senate voted to approve it, which gives Congress the weekend to overcome an 11th hour hurdle and finalize a Covid-19 relief deal before the holidays.
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WASHINGTON — Congress hit a new stumbling block that prevented leaders from approving a coronavirus aid deal on Friday, as lawmakers raced to avert a government shutdown at midnight.

The House voted 320-60 to pass a two-day funding extension, sending it to the Senate, which quickly approved it by a voice vote.

President Donald Trump signed the stopgap bill Friday night, setting up a new Sunday midnight deadline and give negotiators the weekend to sort out their differences on Covid relief.

"Alas, we are not there yet," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling the bill an effort to prevent a "pointless lapse" in funding while negotiations continued.

Congressional leaders settled on a $900 billion framework midweek that was expected to include a $300 federal unemployment bonus, a new round of direct payments, small business funding and money to distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

But a new roadblock emerged as Democrats on Friday accused Republicans, led by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, of seeking to hamstring the incoming Biden administration by cutting off Federal Reserve emergency lending facilities created by the CARES Act to protect the fragile economy.

Democrats want to extend that authority into the new year, describing it as an important tool to respond to an economic crisis.

A senior Democratic aide said "an agreement was in sight to deliver aid to the American people until Sen. Toomey and Republicans inserted an eleventh-hour purely political, unrelated provision to tie Biden’s hands and risk throwing the economy into a tailspin."

Toomey called the issue his "top priority" in a phone call with reporters, arguing that the Fed lending programs were designed to be "temporary" and "cease operations no later than the end of 2020."

"We were in a very, very dangerous moment with respect to financial markets that were not functioning. And so these programs were stood up to revive these private markets and they were remarkably successful in that purpose," he said, describing his stance as "a Republican Senate consensus position."

Democrats say the language sought by Toomey is overly broad and restrictive.

"After weeks of refusing to acknowledge Biden's victory, some Republicans have now decided that sabotaging his presidency is more important than helping our economy recover by insisting that any Covid relief legislation also restrict the ability of the Federal Reserve and the new Administration to help states, cities, and American businesses next year," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a statement.

Earlier Friday, McConnell, R-Ky., sounded upbeat.

"I am even more optimistic now than I was last night that a bipartisan, bicameral framework for a major rescue package is close at hand," McConnell said. "Like I’ve said, the Senate will be right here until an agreement is passed, whenever that may be."

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and McConnell each said this week they planned to combine a Covid-19 relief package with a must-pass $1.4 trillion funding bill that appropriators have negotiated in recent weeks.

The Toomey language continued to be a hurdle into Friday afternoon.

Pelosi and McConnell spoke around 1 p.m. and agreed that staff should wrap up the agreement before 5 p.m., according to two sources familiar with the matter.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., adjourned the chamber until 5 p.m., and when a deal still had not materialized, Democrats went ahead and put the two-day bill up for a vote.

Hoyer adjourned the House until Sunday at noon, making clear there would be no votes on Saturday even if a Covid relief deal is reached quickly.

The government funding bill is ready to pass, aides close to the talks said. The holdup is Covid relief.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Friday that lawmakers are "anxious to get this done."

"There’s some always last minute stuff that pops up. But it's coming together. It's just taking time," Thune told reporters, adding that Fed lending authority remains a hurdle.

"We have a lot of our members who believe that was for a temporary time that needs to be ended," he said. "And the Dems see it differently. I hope we can find a way to finesse that and get a deal."