Pandemic jumbles House agenda
Washington, DC, May 25, 2020 | Politico
The House was already facing a deadline crunch this summer, with a slew of must-pass bills threatening to overwhelm lawmakers for months.
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi will summon members back to Washington this week to begin work on an election year to-do list that has grown longer and more urgent amid the nation’s dual economic and health crises. If Congress falters, the government could shut down, and millions of Americans facing unemployment amid the pandemic could suffer more.
“We have a full agenda that people have been working on for a long time, so it’s a continuation of that, but also an intensification,” Pelosi told reporters late last week, ticking off looming deadlines for appropriations and a defense policy bill, on top of more pandemic recovery packages.
It’s the start of a monthslong slog of spending and policy fights, with Republicans and Democrats battling over everything from the border wall to expanding transit lines to transgender troops. The partisan warfare will only ramp up as Democrats fight to keep their House majority, take back the White House and potentially flip the GOP-held Senate — all in the uncertain political terrain of a global pandemic.
In a typical election year both the House and Senate would hardly be around in the waning weeks leading up to November. Instead, lawmakers would be campaigning for themselves, other candidates and their party’s presidential nominee.
But much of that schedule has been scrambled this year, as the House and Senate were forced to recess for several weeks this spring to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Senate returned in early May to focus on nominations and held a handful of coronavirus hearings, but the House has continued to operate on a limited schedule with leaders warning that previously scheduled off days in the coming months will likely be scrapped to make up for lost time.
The House has voted only on coronavirus-related bills since the pandemic shuttered much of the U.S. in March — a total of $6 trillion in relief bills, though only half that amount has become law. Pelosi has already said she plans to do more but Senate Republicans — who have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the next relief package — have ignored the most recent $3 trillion House bill.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters last week he didn’t expect negotiations on more relief bills to start until the “third or fourth week of June.”
“We just had a lot of our colleagues lecture us about the fact that the tens of billions of dollars aren’t even out yet,” Grassley said. “And we need to know what the need is. You hear about the governors wanting $500 billion for state aid. You got Pelosi putting in $1 trillion.”
For now, with the next tranche of coronavirus relief in limbo, Democrats will pivot to Congress’ other major priorities for the year.
The first vote, expected to take place Wednesday, will be to restore expired federal spy powers, which lapsed in March amid disagreements about how to balance U.S. privacy and security, even among the two parties. The House will also vote on two bills dealing with the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides coronavirus-relief loans to small businesses. The votes will represent the first time in the chamber’s history that proxy voting will be used on the floor.
But there’s far more to do in the coming weeks, with annual chores like crafting spending legislation and the Pentagon policy bill that will become far thornier — if not virtually impossible — in the middle of a heated presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump's last big demand in a funding bill, the border wall, led to the longest-ever government shutdown, and that was nearly two years before his reelection. And this year's defense policy bill is already attracting attention from House progressives, who say they want to cut Pentagon funding to shore up domestic programs amid the pandemic.
Then there’s the less frequent but equally challenging bills that also come due this year, such as a massive federal highway bill, flood insurance and water infrastructure. That’s on top of the long-delayed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
What’s more, the House and Senate will likely need to revisit key parts of Congress’ behemoth coronavirus relief programs, which expire in the coming months. A massive expansion in unemployment benefits ends July 31 — which top Republicans are already saying they won’t renew — and loans through the Paycheck Protection Program end June 30.
The cries for help from state and local governments facing shortfalls amid the pandemic will only grow more desperate as the start of the next fiscal year approaches on July 1.
“Clearly, this is a year without precedent. And, of course, many of us know the old adage is ‘You can't get anything done in an election year,’” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who co-authored a small-business loan flexibility bill that is expected to reach the floor for a vote this week with conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas.).
But the House will need to negotiate with the Senate, which is nearing a deal on its own version of a loan flexibility bill. The Senate's would give businesses up to 16 weeks to use their loans, while the House bill would provide businesses 24 weeks. Pelosi said on a private caucus call that the House could pass its bill this week.
“Nobody, I think, amongst the people with whom I’ve been working with, believes that we can't get things done,” Phillips continued. “The question is, do we have the fortitude and the intention and the power in collaboration to do so.”
The House initially planned to pass all 12 of its appropriations bills on the floor by June. That timeline has slipped as top Democrats raced to draft this month’s $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, which passed on May 15. And now leaders of the House Appropriations Committee say they won’t move to marking up its bills until Congress can agree on another massive infusion of federal coronavirus relief, which may be weeks down the line.
Still, many senior lawmakers and aides are already predicting Congress will do what it does best — punt.
Any decision on the next coronavirus relief measure will require close coordination among House Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House — a relationship that’s grown more fraught as Democrats have demanded trillions more in aid for states, localities, workers and businesses from a resistant GOP.
And now the House, which was forced to remain largely homebound for the past two months, has some catching up to do on its yearly to-do list.
Many of the chamber’s hearings and markups, which might normally have taken place before Memorial Day, are still in the works. But they will now largely be moved online after lawmakers voted along party lines last week to allow committees to hold them remotely.
House leaders have just begun mapping out which bills will come to the floor first, confident that both Appropriations and Armed Services panels can complete their work in the coming weeks.
The House will be able to vote remotely for the next 45 days, but some members have privately pushed their leadership to roll together several votes into a single week — rather than coming back every week in June.
Senior Democrats argue, though, that they can complete their agenda.
“We can’t worry — you can get bogged down worrying,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior appropriator, when asked about this year's truncated schedule. “You’ve got to adjust, step up and do the work.”