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Congress Returns to Aid, Funding Fight 11/30 06:12

   After months of shadowboxing amid a tense and toxic campaign, Capitol Hill's 
main players are returning for one final, perhaps futile, attempt at 
deal-making on a challenging menu of year-end business.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- After months of shadowboxing amid a tense and toxic 
campaign, Capitol Hill's main players are returning for one final, perhaps 
futile, attempt at deal-making on a challenging menu of year-end business.

   COVID-19 relief, a $1.4 trillion catchall spending package, and defense 
policy --- and a final burst of judicial nominees --- dominate a truncated two- 
or three-week session occurring as the coronavirus pandemic rockets out of 
control in President Donald Trump's final weeks in office.

   The only absolute must-do business is preventing a government shutdown when 
a temporary spending bill expires on Dec. 11. The route preferred by top 
lawmakers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader 
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is to agree upon and pass an omnibus spending bill for 
the government. But it may be difficult to overcome bitter divisions regarding 
a long-delayed COVID-19 relief package that's a top priority of business, state 
and local governments, educators and others.

   Time is working against lawmakers as well, as is the Capitol's emerging 
status as a COVID-19 hotspot. The House has truncated its schedule, and Senate 
Republicans are joining Democrats in forgoing the in-person lunch meetings that 
usually anchor their workweeks. It'll take serious, good-faith conversations 
among top players to determine what's possible, but those haven't transpired 
yet.

   Top items for December's lame-duck session:

   ___

   KEEPING THE GOVERNMENT OPEN

   At a bare minimum, lawmakers need to keep the government running by passing 
a stopgap spending bill known as a continuing resolution, which would punt $1.4 
trillion worth of unfinished agency spending into next year.

   That's a typical way to deal with a handoff to a new administration, but 
McConnell and Pelosi are two veterans of the Capitol's appropriations culture 
and are pressing hard for a catchall spending package. A battle over using 
budget sleight of hand to add a 2 percentage point, $12 billion increase to 
domestic programs to accommodate rapidly growing veterans health care spending 
is an issue, as are Trump's demands for U.S-Mexico border wall funding.

   Getting Trump to sign the measure is another challenge. Two years ago he 
sparked a lengthy partial government shutdown over the border wall, but both 
sides would like to clear away the pile of unfinished legislation to give the 
Biden administration a fresh start. The changeover in administrations probably 
wouldn't affect an omnibus deal very much.

   At issue are the 12 annual spending bills comprising the portion of the 
government's budget that passes through Congress each year on a bipartisan 
basis. Whatever approach passes, it's likely to contain a batch of unfinished 
leftovers such as extending expiring health care policies and tax provisions 
and continuing the authorization for the government's flood insurance program.

   ___

   COVID-19 RELIEF

   Democrats have battled with Republicans and the White House for months over 
a fresh installment of COVID-19 relief that all sides say they want. But a lack 
of good faith and an unwillingness to embark on compromises that might lead 
either side out of their political comfort zones have helped keep another 
rescue package on ice.

   The aid remains out of reach despite a fragile economy and out-of-control 
increases in coronavirus cases, especially in Midwest GOP strongholds. 
McConnell is a potent force for a smaller --- but still sizable --- package and 
has supplanted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as the most important 
Republican force in the negotiations.

   Pelosi seems to have overplayed her hand as she held out for $2 
trillion-plus right up until the election. The results of the election, which 
saw Democrats lose seats in the House, appear to have significantly undercut 
her position, but she is holding firm on another round of aid to state and 
local governments.

   Before the election, Trump seemed to be focused on a provision that would 
send another round of $1,200 payments to most Americans. He hasn't shown a lot 
of interest in the topic since, apart from stray tweets. But the chief 
obstacles now appear to be Pelosi's demand for state and local government aid 
and McConnell's demand for a liability shield for businesses reopening during 
the pandemic.

   At stake is funding for vaccines and testing, reopening schools, various 
economic "stimulus" ideas like another round of "paycheck protection" subsidies 
for businesses especially hard hit by the pandemic. Failure to pass a measure 
now would vault the topic to the top of Biden's legislative agenda next year.

   ___

   DEFENSE POLICY

   A spat over military bases named for Confederate officers is threatening the 
annual passage of a defense policy measure that has passed for 59 years in a 
row on a bipartisan basis. The measure is critical in the defense policy world, 
guiding Pentagon policy and cementing decisions about troop levels, new weapons 
systems and military readiness, military personnel policy and other military 
goals.

   Both the House and Senate measures would require the Pentagon to rename 
bases such as Fort Benning and Fort Hood, but Trump opposes the idea and has 
threatened a veto over it. The battle erupted this summer amid widespread 
racial protests, and Trump used the debate to appeal to white Southern voters 
nostalgic about the Confederacy. It's a live issue in two Senate runoff 
elections in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber during the 
first two years of Biden's tenure.

   Democrats are insisting on changing the names and it's not obvious how it'll 
all end up.

 
 
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