22.09.2020

Trump and Congress up against the clock on coronavirus, military spending and more

The bills before each chamber have huge implications on whether Americans receive a second round of stimulus checks by the end of the summer; whether states, local governments, small businesses, and health systems get the money and coverage they need to continue dealing with the coronavirus crisis; and whether the US military and government can continue to function without funding obstacles.

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Congress has a jam-packed legislative schedule with just two weeks left before its planned August recess.

Both chambers are wrapping up consideration of amendments and preparing for final votes this week on the annual National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) that funds the military each year.

On Wednesday, the House is poised to pass a measure that would provide permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan initiative that vulnerable incumbents from both parties and chambers with strong exurban and rural constituencies are eager to tout on the campaign trail.

Later this week, the House will also begin consideration of four of the 12 annual spending bills that must be signed into law to keep the government running. The government has shut down twice in three years under Donald Trump over differences on immigration and border security.

Congress is looking to make it two years in a row without a shutdown.

And looming over all these proceedings are tense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats that will determine whether the government spends $1trn to continue fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout (as Republicans want), $3trn (as Democrats want), or some figure in between.

Covid-19 negotiations

Democrats passed their version of the next coronavirus package months ago, a $3trn, 1,800-page behemoth that that includes, among several other proposals

  • billions of dollars for state and local governments;
  • an extension of the juiced-up unemployment benefits programme that was signed into law earlier this spring;
  • help for people struggling with rent and mortgage payments;
  • expanded mail-in voting for the elections this November;
  • and an infrastructure package that includes a plan to expand broadband internet access.

Republicans are set to release a much different version of Covid-19 relief this week after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shares it with his GOP colleagues.

Mr McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have previewed that bill by emphasising that it will include measures to help American children return safely to schools, incentivise employers to bring people back to work, and provide enough funds to ensure US health systems can deal with sick patients during the pandemic.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, told reporters on Monday his party’s bill will include another round of direct stimulus payments to individuals, which is popular with Democrats, and Donald Trump’s proposed payroll tax cut, which is not.

Mr McConnell has been adamant for weeks that any compromise bill with Democrats must include provisions that shield businesses and health care facilities from liability lawsuits related to exposing people to Covid-19.

“No bill will pass the Senate without liability protection for everyone related to the coronavirus,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters back in his home state last week.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer railed against his Republican counterparts for employing the same partisan legislating process that doomed policing reform last month, writing in a letter to Senate Democrats that they must “stand together” against Mr McConnell’s bill, as they did in March, to negotiate for a broader relief package.

In June, the Democratic-controlled House passed a policing reform bill that went too far for Republicans, while the Senate GOP introduced its own version that Democrats said was too hollow.

Fundamental differences in governing ideology proved an impossible gulf on policing reform.

But both parties agree that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is an immediately pressing concern, and they have vowed to strike another deal after passing more than $2.7trn in federal aid over a four-package slate in the spring.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she would cancel the House’s August recess, a highly unusual move in an election year, if lawmakers can’t reach a deal by then.

“We absolutely have to. We also have to come to an agreement. The timetable is the timetable of the American people needing their unemployment insurance, their direct payments, their assistance for rent and mortgage foreclosure forbearance,” and other federal aid programmes Democrats have proposed, Ms Pelosi said in an interview with CNN last week.

Funding the military in jeopardy?

Both the House and Senate will take up their separate bills to fund the US military for fiscal year 2021, a process that has largely been bipartisan so far as committee leaders in each chamber have worked behind the scenes to shape the contours of a deal.

The Senate is set to consider at least six amendments to its version of the NDAA, including one from a handful of conservative Republicans who want to strike language from the bill that would force the Pentagon to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honour or commemorate the Confederate States of America … or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America from all assets of the Department of Defence” within three years of the 2020 NDAA’s enactment.

The issue of renaming US military bases that honour Confederate officers has threatened to topple the ever-fragile NDAA agreements, with Mr Trump suggesting he could veto any legislation that includes such provisions.

As an example of his opposition to renaming bases, Mr Trump has pointed to the rich history Fort Bragg in North Carolina, whose namesake, Braxton Bragg, was a Confederate general.

A statue of Confederate General Albert Pike lays on the ground after being toppled and defaced near Judiciary Square following a day of Juneteenth celebrations in Washington, DC, USA, 20 June 2020. (EPA / MICHAEL REYNOLDS)

“Fort Bragg is a big deal,” the president said in his heated interview with Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that aired on Sunday.

“We won two World Wars [with troops training there]. Nobody even knows General Bragg. We won two World Wars. Go to that community where Fort Bragg is, in a great state – I love that state – go to the community, say, ‘How do you like the idea of renaming Fort Bragg?’ And then what are we going to name it? We’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton?” Mr Trump said, referencing the American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and former Democratic presidential candidate.

Party leaders have signalled confidence they can garner veto-proof support for a final NDAA when stakeholders in both the House and Senate get together to smooth over the differences between their respective bills.

“What this bipartisan bill does is straightforward: care for our troops; preserve peace through strength; and defend this great nation,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said in a press statement last month.

Confederate statues in US Capitol

The House is also set to consider a measure from Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and others to remove statues and busts in the US Capitol of Confederate leaders and people who promoted slavery.

On the chopping block are busts of South Carolina Senator John C Calhoun, who was a strong advocate for states’ rights to continue enslaving black people during the antebellum period; Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who authored the Dred Scott ruling in 1857 that upheld slavery; and several others.

“Memorials that glorify the Confederacy, segregationists, and white supremacists should not hold places of honor in our nation’s Capitol,” Mr Clyburn has said. “These hallowed halls should be used to promote true American heroes and all its people.”

Mr McConnell has defied calls to, as he puts it, “scrub out” Confederate statues from the halls of the Capitol.

“What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol,” he said in June.

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