Veteran White House correspondent and analyst.
Veteran White House correspondent and analyst.
It’s the most frustrating time of the year in Washington. No, not the annual brawl through crowded shops as the capital city’s residents and dignitaries scurry about on their lunch breaks to finish their holiday shopping.
This is the time of year — since around 2009 — that Congress and whomever is lucky (unlucky?) enough to occupy the White House decide to finally address a list of issues and crises.
It almost always involves government spending for the rest of the fiscal year. A holiday shutdown threat is now as common here as the District’s government ripping up Connecticut Avenue NW in Cleveland Park. Congressional leaders and Donald Trump’s designated negotiators on a Covid relief and government spending package that (after all the remaining contentious issues are ironed out) will total well over $2 trillion are now entering the hurry-up-and-wait phase of this annual December dance.
It’s more drunken square dance than elegant waltz.
There were no fancy holiday parties in Washington this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But had there been one on Capitol Hill with all four congressional leaders and Trump as the guests of honour, the theme could well have been: “Why Do In June What We Can Put Off Until December?”
Because that’s exactly what all parties involved did on the annual dozen federal spending bills and another coronavirus economic relief bill.
The emerging package on Covid will, when all the numbers are added up, likely end up around $910 billion.
No matter what Democratic leaders say publicly, their rank-and-file members will tell you it was foolish to hold out for six months for a $2 trillion package that Republicans were never going to bring to the Senate floor, much less pass.
And no matter how loudly Republicans spend the next few weeks declaring victory over the size of this measure, their demand of an even smaller package – or none at all – was equally unreasonable. Both held out for half a year as American families and businesses struggled to put food on the table and pay their rent or mortgages over their biggest demands: tens of billions to help cash-depleted state and local governments (Democrats) and new liability protections for businesses and other entities to guard them from Covid-related lawsuits (Republicans).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell breathed life into the talks when he proposed throwing out both a few weeks ago. He could have spoken up months before, but opted, like all others involved, to allow families and business owners to limp along, hit up food banks or, in the case of many small companies, close their doors forever.
When McConnell floated the idea of discarding those two big sticking-points, Speaker Nancy Pelosi fired off a press release calling the idea “absurd.” A few weeks later, she is about to sign off on and urge her members to vote for a bill that does just that. Absurd about covers it.
Will there soon be a deal? The answer seems to be yes, but can frustratingly seem to change by the second.
McConnell used part of his session-opening floor speech on Thursday to say passing the government-funding portion of the emerging deal is on the “one-yard line.” But just a few minutes later, he had ominous words about the Covid half.
“But I will say this … in my judgement, we are very close to a point that arises in every major negotiation. It’s the point where each side faces a fork in the road,” he said. “Do we want to lapse into politics as usual and let negotiations lose steam? Do we want to haggle and spar like this was an ordinary political exercise, get wrapped around the actual language or policy riders that we know are controversial?”
Republicans in Congress are making the politically brazen bet that it’s more advantageous to oppose President Joe Biden’s ambitious “Rebuild America” agenda than to lend support for the costly $2.3 trillion undertaking for roads, bridges and
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