December 11, 2020
What to expect in Washington (December 11)
There isn't yet agreement among members of Congress and with the President on additional coronavirus spending — which could possibly carry other items including tax provisions — and there is no imminent deadline, not even the next planned expiration of government funding on December 18. "I would hope that it would honor the December 18th deadline, but we can't go before the package is ready and the votes are there," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said December 10. "[W]e've been here after Christmas, you know. … We were here five years ago on the budget, and I can tell you stories about that if you want." She said the December 26 expiration of Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits would be the next key date if a deal isn't reached sooner.
The bipartisan Senate group that has been filling out details of the $908 billion plan first outlined December 1 settled on an approach to the Democratic priority of state and local government funding but hasn't found a middle ground on liability protections advocated by Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) staff "told leadership offices in both parties on Wednesday night that McConnell sees no possible path for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to reach an agreement on [the] two contentious provisions that would be broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans," the Washington Post reported December 10.
The AP reported that McConnell's staff objected to "a slimmed-down version of the liability shield he is seeking for companies and organizations facing potential COVID-19 lawsuits," and that "late Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democrats pitched another liability proposal to the bipartisan group, but it was rejected by Republicans."
"My sense is that they're not going to get there on the liability language," Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) said in today's Wall Street Journal (WSJ). "Even though they spent a lot of time trying to come up with sort of creative, innovative solutions to it, they're just not going to be able to thread the needle."
Speaker Pelosi, who with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has identified the bipartisan group's work as the best shot for getting a bill over the finish line, said the group "made great progress" but some things remain uncertain, and McConnell's liability approach is "an assault on America's workers."
Meanwhile, a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government beyond December 11 and through December 18, which cleared the House December 9, faces challenges in the Senate. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) are trying to secure a vote on another round of $1,200 stimulus checks. The CR could also get held up by Senator Rand Paul's (R-KY) concerns over the unrelated National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also awaiting Senate action.
Adoption of the NDAA conference report was being held up by Sen. Paul over provisions that limit the President's ability to remove troops from Afghanistan. A procedural vote today (Friday) is expected to clear by a considerable margin, creating a potential timing problem for consideration of the House-passed CR by the midnight deadline to prevent a government shutdown (absent some agreement to pass the funding bill by voice vote without amendment). Politico reported: "Paul said he would drop his objection if GOP leaders allowed a final vote on the National Defense Authorization Act on Monday, which would require the Senate to go through the procedural motions. But Republicans are eager to finish work on it this week, in addition to a one-week government funding bill to avoid a shutdown."
Expiring tax provisions could be extended as part of a final year-end agreement. The WSJ served up a story on craft beverage excise tax cuts enacted with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (and extended once since) that are set to expire at the end of the year and increase taxes on local breweries that have been battered economically by the pandemic. "Unlike quarterly income-tax payments, excise taxes are due as often as twice a month," making it more difficult for Congress to let the cuts expire and renew them retroactively, it said. "The tax cuts enjoy broad bipartisan support because so many lawmakers now have breweries in their districts," the report said. "But the fate of the tax cuts — along with dozens of other expiring tax provisions that affect a range of industries — remains uncertain and overshadowed by the broader fight over economic aid as the lame-duck congressional session enters its final days."
During the December 9 Senate Finance subcommittee hearing on "Investigating Challenges to American Retirement Security," full Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said he plans to, in the coming days, introduce legislation that builds on the SECURE Act and the provisions of a Portman-Cardin bill as well as a House bill. Also, "we've been negotiating with our Democratic colleagues for more than a week to find a solution on the multiemployer pension and I'd still like to find a way to reach a deal," he said.
The next Administration
President-elect Joe Biden announced additional nominations December 10: Secretary Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs; Katherine Tai, United States Trade Representative; and Ambassador Susan Rice, Director of the Domestic Policy Council.
Biden plans to visit Georgia next week to campaign for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock ahead of the January 5 Senate runoffs that will impact how he will proceed with his agenda next year: Democrats must win both to control the chamber and have Vice President-elect Kamala Harris break 50-50 ties. President Trump campaigned last weekend for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
In a WSJ op-ed, former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said "the Biden administration has an opportunity to build a new domestic coalition for trade," and "A new Biden approach should highlight the digital economy, environmental goods and services, and health supplies, as well as intellectual property and agriculture. Accords can advance American values by including terms that boost transparency, fight corruption, and strengthen the rule of law, including for labor rights."