Congress votes to avert government shutdown for now as Covid relief talks drag on

Threat of another government shutdown hangs over Washington as Covid relief talks drag on. By Manu Raju and Clare Foran, CNN

(CNN) -- Congressional leaders on Friday failed to secure a long-awaited deal on a $900 billion pandemic relief package but managed to narrowly avoid a government shutdown -- for now.

The House and Senate passed a two-day extension of government funding to keep agencies operating until Sunday night. The White House announced just after 10 p.m. ET on Friday that President Donald Trump had signed the bill, ensuring the government would stay open through the weekend.

The move ratcheted up pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to finalize a stimulus agreement that they have said for days they are on the cusp of reaching.

Now lawmakers will stay in Washington over the weekend as Hill leaders continue to work with many rank-and-file members growing increasingly frustrated and impatient over the lack of information about a major rescue package they have yet to see but expect to be voting on in just a matter of days.

Hill leaders have been confronting problems on multiple fronts. There are key outstanding issues that have not been resolved in the talks, including an effort by Republicans to restrict the Federal Reserve's emergency lending authority that has sparked intense push back from Democrats.

There is also growing frustration among rank-and-file lawmakers who feel they have been left in the dark about the contents of the deal, with at least one Republican threatening to shut down the government unless the situation changes.

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri expressed frustration over the process earlier in the day, saying, "It's beginning to reach the point of absurdity."

Tensions continued to boil over on the House floor Friday afternoon among members who are shut out of the talks, according to members in both parties.

"What the hell is going on?" one Democrat said, summing up the frustration on the floor.

A Republican House member added: "We are hearing nothing -- and it's outrageous."

To pull off passage of a short-term funding bill just hours before midnight will require bipartisan cooperation and all 100 senators to agree to schedule a vote.

Later on Friday, Hawley, who has been pushing for $1,200 stimulus checks, said that he would not object to a stop-gap measure in the Senate.

"I have been assured by Senate GOP leadership that #COVID direct assistance to working people IS in the #covid relief bill under negotiation & will remain. And on that basis, I will consent to a brief continuing resolution to allow negotiations to conclude," he tweeted.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also pushing for $1,200 checks, has been non-committal on whether he would give consent to keep the government open for two more days, saying, "We are thinking about it."

Risks of a potential shutdown

If a lapse in government funding occurs, it would begin over the weekend and could be so brief that it would have virtually no impact on government operations.

But there would still be major risks involved -- especially if they're unable to resolve their impasse, causing a protracted shutdown in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, raging economic crisis and a high-stakes vaccine rollout.

Moreover, even a brief shutdown would almost certainly inflame partisan tensions that could make efforts to finish negotiations over a stimulus package even more complicated.

A partisan blame game over a shutdown could also be damaging for both parties with little time left before the consequential Georgia Senate runoff races take place in January that will determine control of the chamber in the new Congress.

Key issues outstanding to a deal

The holdup in finalizing a deal comes as a result of a slate of issues that have yet to be resolved.

"It's a little bit of whack-a-mole, you know, whack it here and something else pops up," said Thune. "There's a lot of interaction between the moving parts of all this, and getting it all lined up at the same time is proving to be pretty hard."

The relief deal, which could have a price tag of close to $900 billion, is expected to include money for vaccine distribution and schools, jobless benefits of $300 per week, roughly $330 billion for small business loans, and a new round of stimulus checks, which could be set at around $600 per individual under a certain income threshold -- half the amount given under the March stimulus law.

The leadership is facing pressure from the right and left to tweak the deal before it's unveiled.

Democrats contend that "an agreement was in sight" until Republicans pushed a provision by Sen. Pat Toomey to rein in the Federal Reserve's emergency lending authority, according to a senior Democratic aide. Democrats argue it's intended to constrain the Biden administration's efforts to respond to the crisis.

Toomey denies that he's trying to constrain the Biden administration and argues these programs were meant to wind down at year's end.

Other outstanding issues include whether there should be further restrictions on who should be eligible for the one-time checks and whether and how long to extend the eviction moratorium, as some Republicans argue that providing rental assistance could be sufficient. Democrats disagree.

The leadership has also continued to negotiate how Federal Emergency Management Agency money for states and cities would be structured, according to sources, something Democrats are pushing but Republicans are resisting.

For now, lawmakers are bracing for the possibility that a lapse in government funding may trigger a midnight shutdown.

"There may be a partial lapse. It's clear we're here for the weekend," Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said on Thursday. "It seems to me that the issues that remain unresolved are bridgeable. But the question is how long does that take."

This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.

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