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Dec. 17, 2020, 4:45 p.m. EST

Shut down the government in a pandemic? It’s possible as coronavirus talks drag

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Congress was already looking like it would miss a Friday target for getting a coronavirus economic-stimulus package done. Now there’s a chance it could also miss the deadline to fund the government, causing a weekend shutdown.

The prospect is unlikely — neither party wants to be the one blamed for shuttering the federal government in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic — but the closer the clock ticks to the Friday-night expiration of the current bill funding the government, the more possible it becomes.

“Government shutdowns are never good,” Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told reporters Thursday afternoon.

“If it’s for a very short amount of time over the weekend, hopefully it’s not going to be something that would be all that harmful,” he said, adding his preference would be to finish both an aid bill and a government funding bill before the deadline.

The combination of waiting to pass another short-term bill, a so-called continuing resolution, to keep the government funded at current levels, and the arcane rules of the Senate would be to blame if a shutdown happened.

Leaders have been reluctant to schedule a vote on another stopgap bill, worrying it would ease pressure to come to a COVID-19 bill agreement. But that means there would not be enough time for a bill in the Senate to reach the floor Friday unless every senator agreed to allow that. In turn, senators may be tempted to leverage the need for their approval into a concessions.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, for example, said he wants a floor vote on having direct stimulus payments of $1,200 sent to households, twice as much as the amount under discussion by congressional leaders in the aid bill.

Hawley left open the idea of objecting a short-term funding bill. “We’ll see. I would say all options are on the table,” he told reporters. “But they need to get this package done.”

If there are no objections in the Senate, the mechanics of passing a short-term bill would be relatively simple and not take much time. The House has not scheduled a vote on anything — a stopgap bill, a full funding bill or an aid deal — for Friday, though House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office reminded House members the schedule could be “very fluid.”

Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned on the Senate floor that it was “highly likely” lawmakers will need to stay beyond Friday and work into the weekend.

“If we need to further extend the Friday funding deadline before final legislation can pass in both chambers, I hope we’ll extend it for a very, very short window of time,” McConnell said.

Thune separately told reporters on Capitol Hill that an extension would probably be needed. “I hope it wouldn’t be more than, you know, 24 or 48 hours,” he said.

Democrats appeared less eager to extend the deadline, even as they acknowledged it may be necessary.

Hoyer, speaking on “CNN Newsroom,” said it may take some time to convert an aid deal once reached into legislative text that can be voted on, but he still preferred to act by Friday, if possible. “If we can get that done, I’d like to put it on the floor tomorrow, even if it’s late tomorrow into the evening hours,” he said.

The COVID-19 aid bill is expected to include another round of direct payments to households, though they would be only about half the size of the $1,200 payments in the spring.

It is also likely to include another round of the small-business lending Paycheck Protection Program and an extension of pandemic unemployment benefits with a revived federal add-on payment to jobless checks of $300 a week.

But the details of those programs appeared to be fluid as Friday draws closer. Thune said one sticking point was who should get the direct payments.

“I think what I’m suggesting is income sort of benchmarks and figuring out ways of, I would say, narrowing the number of people who would get the benefit of the check to those who need it the most,” he told reporters.

Hoyer said Democrats were concerned over how much would be provided for federal food assistance to the poor, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In a proposal by a bipartisan group of senators unveiled Monday, SNAP assistance amounts would be increased by 15% for four months and the program extended to U.S. territories.

“For me, it’s hard to understand why that’s a sticking point when we see lines of people who never expected to be in a food line in their entire lives, are there because they want to feed their children and themselves. We ought to be acting,” Hoyer said.

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