U.S. Congress eyes stopgap funding as COVID-19 relief, spending talks continue

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Congress is likely to consider a one-week stopgap funding bill to provide more time for lawmakers to hammer out agreements in talks aimed at delivering COVID-19 relief and an overarching spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, Democratic aides said on Monday.

Lawmakers in the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-run House of Representatives need to enact a funding measure by Friday, when current funding for federal agencies is set to expire. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hope to attach long-awaited COVID-19 relief to a broad $1.4 trillion spending bill.

But separate negotiations on coronavirus aid and government funding have yet to produce agreement, making it likely that Congress will vote on a stopgap funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, to allow an additional week of talks, two House Democratic aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A bipartisan effort to deliver an infusion of COVID-19 relief to U.S. families and businesses remained hung up on Monday over provisions to help state and local governments, which Democrats want, and protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a top Republican priority.

A group of House and Senate lawmakers had been expected as early as Monday to roll out the formal text of a $908 billion bill to blunt the health and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic into the early days of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Biden is due to take office on Jan. 20.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a new memo to Congress that failure to enact relief would risk a “double-dip recession” – which occurs when a recession is followed by a brief recovery and then another recession – that would permanently shutter small businesses and leave millions of Americans with no means of support.

But after lawmakers and their staff worked through the weekend to finalize the package, congressional aides said there was still no agreement.

The same issues have blocked coronavirus relief legislation for months, leading to mounting frustrations toward Congress among business owners, unions, state and local government officials and ordinary Americans.

Considering the weakening of the economy coupled with a surge in COVID-19 cases at a time when previously approved relief mechanisms are due to expire, it would be “stupidity on steroids if Congress doesn’t act,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner, a member of the bipartisan group that wrote the proposal, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Lawmakers enacted $3 trillion in aid earlier this year but have not been able to agree on fresh relief since April.

A group of emergency aid programs implemented in response to the pandemic, including additional unemployment benefits and a moratorium on renter evictions, is set to expire at the end of December.

With U.S. coronavirus deaths topping 282,000 and pressure mounting for aid to a fragile economy, lawmakers and their staff worked through the weekend to put the finishing touches on the COVID-19 package intended to help those facing the greatest need, according to Senate Republican aides.

It would set new emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployed people, airlines and other industries during the pandemic. But lawmakers have opted not to include stimulus checks to individuals out of concern that a higher price tag could delay passage.

A framework for the bipartisan bill, unveiled earlier by the group of House and Senate lawmakers, has support from moderates and conservatives.

McConnell, who has pushed to limit spending to $500 billion, circulated a list of “targeted” relief provisions to Senate Republicans last week that he said President Donald Trump would sign. White House officials have also said that Trump favors a targeted measure.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer on Sunday blasted McConnell’s proposal, saying Americans need urgent relief or they will risk losing their unemployment insurance benefits the day after Christmas.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by David Lawder, Sarah N. Lynch and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)