The legislative and political mechanics of passing a big bill in Congress become tougher every day
The long-debated, little-advanced coronavirus fiscal stimulus lawmakers and the White House have been haggling over is coming face to face with a familiar foe: the clock.
According to observers on and off Capitol Hill, the sheer logistics involved in a complicated, big package like the kind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been trying to hammer out in recent weeks make it too late or nearly too late to see it enacted by the Nov. 3 election day.
Time, of course, is not the only obstacle a big deal would face. As of Thursday, the stated positions were that President Donald Trump was willing to go above his previous $1.8 trillion offer and Pelosi was standing pat in favor of the $2.2 trillion package the House passed.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose agreement would be needed to put a large package on the chamber’s floor, has stood firm he does not intend to offer and doesn’t think his fellow Republicans would support anything more than the $500 billion package he’ll present next week.
A House Democratic leadership aide said it was fair to consider early next week as the practical deadline.
“Some of this would be already drafted, or cut-and-paste ready, given our bill is out there. But the real problem is translating agreement in principle to [legislative] text on various aspects,” the aide said.
At the White House, similar doubts exist. Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, in a Fox Business Network interview Friday, said, “Less than three weeks to go, I don’t know.”
“Even if you made a deal, it would be almost impossible to execute. Maybe some of it could be executed, but you certainly couldn’t get a grand, large deal,” Kudlow said.
Legislative text would need to be reviewed by each side to ensure no unintended consequences or drafting errors. And while negotiators have probably been getting informal back-of-the-envelope scores from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office as proposals are swapped, waiting to get a formal score of its total cost could add more time.
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At the same time or not long after, intraparty groups would need to be persuaded to get on board, like the New Democrat Coalition or the Republican Study Committee in the House.
Procedurally, there are also issues. Most members of both chambers of Congress are out of Washington now. The Senate is slated to come back next week to vote on McConnell’s $500 billion package and begin consideration of Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court, but House lawmakers are out until after the election, subject to recall with a 24-hour notice.
In the Senate, opponents could threaten to filibuster it, making a package go through procedural votes that would eat up valuable days. In the case of stimulus, assuming the House approved it first and McConnell changed his mind, it could come after the Barrett vote, in the latter part of the last week before the election.
Even that could be tricky, politically. The third quarter gross domestic product report that the Trump campaign has been touting and which is expected to show sharp rebound in growth is set for release Oct. 29, the Thursday before the election. A theoretical stimulus package to help the economy that cleared all the other hurdles could face an approval vote around the same time government statisticians say the economy turned in its best quarterly performance ever.
“The clock has run out on any big deal before the election. Everything I know would indicate the discussions are not at all at the legislative language level but principles,” said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president with the Bipartisan Policy Center and Hill staffer veteran of several big budget bills.
“I could be wrong and maybe there are some cut and paste opportunities for the legislation, but overall and the SCOTUS debate + selling to GOP Senators + cloture, etc. just informs me that it is too late,” he said in an email.
That was the assessment of a Senate GOP aide, as well, who said the vote on McConnell’s package next week was likely the last time the Senate will deal with the issue until the postelection lame duck session.
“I think McConnell made it pretty clear it’s dead prior to the election,” the aide said.
Mnuchin has said getting a big deal would be hard but not impossible. But he also said Thursday the potential difficulties made it more important to repurpose lending authority to make new small business and other loans, as well as revive the direct payments to households.
“I can literally get that money out the door this week.”
— Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
“I can literally get that money out the door this week,” he said of repurposing unused lending authority. “And by the way, you know, if they would approve stand-alone checks, which is mostly direct deposits, we can get that money out quickly as well.”