Omnibus Appropriations Talks Commence; COVID Talks Go Nowhere

Negotiations between the House and Senate on an omnibus package of fiscal 2021 appropriations bills opened in earnest this week, when Senate Republicans released the text of all 12 of the Appropriations Committee’s bills (most of which had significant Democratic input) to serve as a counter-offer to the bills passed by the House this summer. (See this article for our overview.)

Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and sounded optimistic about getting all 12 bills done in one or more packages by the initial deadline of December 11. Shelby told reporters that he and Pelosi were “about 90 percent of the way there” but that, of course, other 10 percent of the content of the bills was the problem.

However, many observers and some participants in the process are worried that the appropriators will spend the next month feverishly working towards an omnibus appropriations package, without guidance from the White House, and then the ever-unpredictable President Trump will upend the negotiations with a demand that can’t be met.

In that case, the work on the omnibus bills would have to be jettisoned, and a continuing resolution enacted into some point next year. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would then have to decide whether to extend appropriations into January-February and use the partly-negotiated omnibus as a starting point, or just give up and extend 2020 funding levels through the end of 2021.

However, the chairmen and leaders appear dedicated to negotiating an omnibus 2021 appropriations package, if at all possible, and both sides have released their starting points that, often, are at least in the ballpark where compromise is possible.

It’s hard to say that about the negotiations relating to COVID relief, which actually went backwards this week, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin being removed from negotiating authority, after he had held frequent talks with Speaker Pelosi in September, October and early November, gradually increasing the size of the package that he said the White House was willing to accept up to the $1.8 trillion to $1.9 trillion range.

It now appears that President Trump’s desire for a new COVID relief package was mostly focused on getting a bill that he could sign before the elections, preferably one that gave out another round of $1,200 checks to eligible voters that could be cashed before the elections. Now that it’s too late for that, the Administration has disengaged on the issue, leaving it to McConnell, who is still wants to use a bill in the $500 billion range as a starting point. Either way, it’s a much farther cry for the $3.4 trillion the House asked for in May, or even the $2.4 trillion in the revised version the House passed on October 1.

Coronavirus-Related Emergency Assistance (Billions of Dollars)
Discretionary Mandatory Revenue TOTAL DEFICIT
Enacted Appropriations Funding Reductions INCREASE
H.R. 6074 March 6 8 0 0 8
H.R. 6201 March 18 2 95 94 192
H.R. 748 March 27 326 988 408 1,721
H.R. 266 April 24 0 321 0 321
Proposed Legislation Day of Vote
House HEROES Act May 15 1,511 1,624 310 3,445
Revised House Heroes 2 Oct. 1 1,161 1,304 -68 2,398
McConnell Bill Oct. 21 186 316 17 519

Pelosi’s insistence in one large bill, addressing the concerns of all, instead of one or a series of more targeted bills, has been a main sticking point, as has been Republican reluctance to provide further financial relief to state, city and county governments. There are plenty of elements in these proposals that could pass Congress nearly unanimously, if Pelosi and McConnell would let them – more money for testing and vaccine distribution, another round of forgivable PPP loans, targeted relief to the hardest-hit economic sectors, etc. – but nothing on a larger bill.

(Ed. Note: If Pelosi had taken Mnuchin’s offer of $1.8 trillion before the elections, a new COVID bill might already be law, and the relief might be being spent already. But this election was close enough in a few states to where that a pre-election COVID bill might have pushed Trump over the line and won him the Electoral College, even as he lost the popular vote a second time.

McConnell’s attitude towards both the omnibus appropriations negotiations and the COVID aid negotiations likely revolves around the two Georgia runoff elections for U.S. Senate, to be held January 5. McConnell can be expected to push for whatever resolution of the omnibus and COVID negotiations make it more likely for Senators Perdue (R-GA) and Loeffler (R-GA) to win those runoff elections.

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