A classic congressional Grinch is threatening to steal senators’ dreams of passing a colossal $1.7 trillion government funding package as soon as Wednesday to avoid a potentially paralyzing storm ahead of the holidays.
Senate leaders are eager to pass the spending bill, the final item on their to-do list before they leave Washington through the end of January. And leaders have plenty of potential leverage points as they try to nudge all 100 of their colleagues onto the nice list.
In addition to the snowstorm that will affect half the country and the strong appeal of a holiday break, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to deliver a joint address to Congress at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday — a high-stakes visit that comes as members look to deliver about $45 billion in aid to the country via the spending bill.
Bipartisan hopes of a speedy exit hinge on whether lawmakers can vault over a long line of procedural hurdles. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the Senate was still struggling to reach an agreement that can send the year-end spending package over to the House before federal cash expires on Friday at midnight. The holiday spirit, for some, was starting to look more like a darkly humorous sitcom than a heartwarming tale.
“We need a Festivus miracle,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). « We’ve got plenty of airing of grievances right now. »
Thune — who added that his efforts to smooth things over with fellow Republicans during a vote on Wednesday went “not great” — observed that negotiations go in “peaks and valleys, and we’re in a valley right now.”
Across the Capitol, House Democratic leaders are telling members to prepare for the possibility of late votes on Thursday night if the Senate approves the bill, given lawmakers’ eagerness to escape the Capitol before wintry weather bears down on the Midwest and East Coast.
“We must finish our work before the deadline of Friday midnight. But in reality, I hope we can vote on final passage much sooner than that, even as early as tonight. There’s no reason for the Senate to wait and plenty of reasons to move quickly before a potential blizzard makes travel hazardous for members, staff and families right before the Christmas season,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor.
The best case scenario for senators is locking down a deal that allows them to vote on several potential changes to the bill and send it over to the House before Zelenskyy’s speech on Wednesday night. But lawmakers and aides warned that chances were growing of having to come back and pull a late-night session to pass the bill, or even return on Thursday morning.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said senators are “in an anxious mode — anxious to pass the bill and go home, like everybody.” Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that members of his party are being lined up to preside over the Senate until 5 a.m. on Thursday morning.
“I think today we’re going to be doing a lot of voting,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “I think we’re going to have an amazing speech tonight from President Zelenskyy and we’re going to go back and do a lot more voting. I think Senator Schumer is prepared to keep us in our chair and just vote until we’re done.”
Senate leaders floated a package of nine amendments overnight, but received pushback. Now, that list of amendment votes may grow.
“We’re crashing through amendments on both sides,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), adding that “more amendments are being considered on both sides.”
The amendments on the list circulated overnight include one from conservative Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that would strip funding for earmarks in the bill, three proposals related to expanding protections for pregnant workers, and a bipartisan pitch from Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on 9/11 families.
Democrats are also mulling offering a counter-proposal that would give their own members political cover should Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) get a vote on his amendment regarding what’s known as Title 42, Trump-era border restrictions tied to the coronavirus.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is also expected to get a vote on his proposal to attach the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to the year-end spending bill. That measure, which would require employers to provide pregnant workers with accommodations like bathroom breaks, has stalled in the upper chamber over GOP concerns about religious liberty exemptions.
As part of the deal floated by leadership overnight, the Senate would also vote on tweaks to address those religious freedom concerns.
“I think it will pass,” said Cassidy, who expected broad support from Democrats. “We’ve got policy that threads the needle and does something really good for someone who’s eight months pregnant and needs extra bathroom breaks.”
Indeed, some changes could make it into the spending bill fairly easily. Thune said that a proposal from Lee to extend pay and benefits to a Navy lieutenant currently jailed in Japan would likely get approved by voice vote and hitch a ride on the spending package.
But the ongoing discussion is beginning to wear on senators who are eager to get out of town.
“I’m anxious for us to start voting,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “I wish we were voting right now.”
“It only takes one person to inconvenience all the rest,” he added. “There are some people who are happy doing that.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) described the lengthy talks as “the maddening part of being in the Senate.”
“We have a few senators demanding a vote on difficult amendments, and so negotiating between the two leaders about what’s the vote threshold and what’s the exact language and who are the co-sponsors is going to take up pretty much all day today,” Coons said.
Sarah Ferris, Eleanor Mueller and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.