Congress seeks to avert shutdown temporarily as talks about virus relief bill proceed at turtle’s pace.

by Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver 

Ahead of a looming Saturday deadline, the House on Wednesday voted to keep the government funded for another week, sending a placeholder measure to the Senate today while a partisan, back-and-forth drama continues about whether to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to help jobless Americans and ailing small businesses before the end of the month.

CNBC: Wednesday’s government funding measure, approved by the House in a 343-67 vote, would avert a shutdown through Dec. 18. Senators could try to approve the stopgap bill as soon as today. 

Eager to be out of Washington before the holidays but pressured to enact relief funding set to expire for millions of people who are impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, lawmakers resumed negotiations on Wednesday, although the talks have gone nowhere since May. 

The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Naomi Jagoda report that flickers of momentum appeared to stall amid persistent clashes over what should be included. The talks involve dueling parties and factions as well as Senate Republicans who are not in sync with the administration, represented by the Treasury Department. 

At midday, a bipartisan group of House and Senate moderates circulated more details about a plan to extend unemployment insurance for 16 weeks and offer more loans to small businesses as part of a $908 billion coronavirus relief proposal.  

However, the summary, obtained by The Hill, included no specifics about two key hurdles: the Democrat-favored $160 billion to help state and local governments, and COVID-19 liability protection for businesses backed by some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The discussion document sidesteps those persistent sticking points and describes agreements in principle “as the basis for good faith negotiations” (The Hill). 

McConnell’s proposal to scrap state and local funding from any COVID-19 relief bill has drawn criticism from economists who believe injecting federal funds into cash-strapped state and local governments before services are curtailed and workers purged is a wise investment to buoy a wobbly economy. State and local government revenues have been hit hard during the pandemic, resulting in more than a million layoffs in education alone (The Hill).  

The GOP argument championed by President Trump, who says such funding would wrongly benefit mismanaged cities and states led by Democrats, is incorrect, according to findings by Moody’s Analytics, which reports that six of seven states facing the steepest projected drops in revenues over the next two years are red states that supported Trump in November (The New York Times). The key issue is not which party is in charge but rather the economic and business underpinnings of the states, their tax structures, and how hard COVID-19 hit their populations and hospitals. 

The Wall Street Journal: Lawmakers weigh competing COVID-19 aid proposals. 

CNN: The National Restaurant Association is publicly pleading with Congress to pass new stimulus to help the industry. The group said 110,000 restaurants, or 17 percent, have already permanently shuttered in 2020, and 37 percent of restaurants say it is “unlikely” they will be open six months from now if the government does not help (pictured above). 

In the Capitol, a major complication lurking beneath lawmakers’ discussions is the uncertainty about which party will control the Senate after Jan. 5, when Georgia holds two key runoff contests that pit two GOP incumbents senators against Democratic challengers. McConnell appears determined not to bring any measure to the floor that divides his conference before voters cast their ballots in Georgia (The Hill). 

As Congress continues to debate how to help Americans hang on economically during the pandemic, public health officials are working to promote trust in the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, which are expected to be available to some early recipients in the United States beginning this week.  

An independent committee crucial to clearing a COVID-19 vaccine will hold an all-day meeting today, and regulators on the panel are expected to make a decision to grant emergency use authorization in the coming days or next week (The Hill). The expert committee will review data from Pfizer and German startup BioNTech and by day’s end will vote on whether the Food and Drug Administration should authorize the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine in this country.  

Despite the coming vaccine, members of the White House coronavirus task force say coronavirus vaccinations will not drive down the spread of COVID-19 until late spring. They want states to champion other mitigation measures in the interim.  

“The current vaccine implementation will not substantially reduce viral spread, hospitalizations, or fatalities until the 100 million Americans with comorbidities can be fully immunized, which will take until the late spring,” the task force wrote in its weekly report to state governors. “Behavioral change and aggressive mitigation policies are the only widespread prevention tools that we have to address this winter surge” (The Hill). 

The Associated Press: A new poll finds only about half of Americans say they are ready to roll up their sleeves when their turn comes. The survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows about a quarter of U.S. adults aren’t sure if they want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Roughly another quarter say they won’t.

On Wednesday, public trust in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine took a hit in the United Kingdom as British regulators warned a day after a “V-Day” distribution program began that people who have a history of serious allergic reactions to medicines or food shouldn’t receive inoculations.  

That includes anyone who has been told to carry an adrenaline shot or others who have had potentially fatal allergic reactions, they said. British officials are investigating two adverse reactions that occurred on the first day of the country’s mass vaccination program. The two people affected were staff members with the National Health Service who had a history of allergies, and both are recovering. Authorities have not specified what their reactions were (The Associated Press). 

Allergic reactions to vaccinations are rare and are usually short-lived, The Associated Press explains 

Another public trust issue is access enjoyed by Trump allies to scarce treatments after they contract COVID-19. The president’s friends have benefited from the latest drugs and hospitalization in ways that are out of reach for most Americans (The New York Times). 

International: Canada on Wednesday approved interim authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. Locales in major cities are expected to start doling out the shots as early as next week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that the country could receive up to 249,000 doses of the vaccine (The Washington Post). … Germany is gradually moving toward a tighter lockdown, at least for a limited period after Christmas. Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated tougher restrictions on public life Wednesday and pleaded with her countrymen to reduce activities and social engagement that serve to spread the coronavirus as the country reported its highest single-day death toll during the pandemic (The Associated Press).  

State Watch: Michigan House voting sessions were canceled on Wednesday and today because of the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks of lawmakers (The Associated Press). … Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) announced on Wednesday that he tested positive for COVID-19. The two-term governor said that he is asymptomatic and that he learned he was infected through a routine test. … Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) extended the state’s mask mandate until Jan. 22 (CBS News). … In Baltimore, Mayor Brandon Scott (D) announced on Wednesday that indoor and outdoor dining will shut down in the city beginning Friday at 5 p.m. as virus cases surge (The Baltimore Sun). 

More in Congress: “Congress’s gerontocracy problem shows no sign of abating,” reports The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who describes the short-term memory struggles of 87-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). … Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), 76, the No. 2 Democrat, will become the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year (The Hill). …The House on Wednesday passed a bill by voice vote that would make it easier for scientists to conduct marijuana research in states where the drug is legal (Politico). … In a victory for Trump, the Senate on Wednesday defeated a pair of Democrat-led measures to block the administration’s proposed sale of advanced military weapons (F-35 stealth fighter jets and Reaper drones) to the United Arab Emirates (Politico).

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