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Congress Faces Make-or-Break Week on Stimulus, Government Funding, and Defense Bill

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  • Congress is facing three major deadlines this week: the stimulus bill, the government funding bill, and a defense bill that provides troop raises. All three, however, remain up in the air.
  • Democratic leaders and key Republican senators have said they will support the bipartisan $908 billion stimulus bill, but Senate Majority Leader McConnell has refused to sign on.
  • If lawmakers don’t finish hashing out the final details of the $1.4 trillion government funding bill, the government will shut down on Friday.
  • Lawmakers have floated a one-week extension that would give them more time to debate the government funding bill and the stimulus package, which will likely be tacked on to the omnibus spending legislation.
  • While both chambers are set to approve the annual defense spending bill this week, President Trump has threatened to veto the bipartisan legislation that has been signed into law for 59 straight years unless it repeals Section 230, an entirely unrelated law that grants legal protections for social media companies.

Stimulus Package

Congress is headed for a busy and chaotic week as lawmakers near key deadlines to pass another coronavirus relief stimulus package, government funding legislation, and the defense budget bill. 

Members have recently made some of the most concrete strides towards the approval of a stimulus bill after a bipartisan group of senators announced a $908 billion stimulus proposal last week.

Among other things, that proposal includes an additional $300 a week in expanded unemployment benefits, $288 billion for loans to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and other similar programs, $160 billion for state and local governments, $25 billion in housing assistance, and short-term federal protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

While many senators have agreed to the idea in principle, the bipartisan group has not yet rolled out an official bill with formal language laying out these policies, though they are expected to do so by Monday night.

However, even if the group does reach an agreement among themselves, the question still remains: will leadership sign on?

Democratic leaders did throw their support behind the general bipartisan proposal last week, but they were careful with the phrasing of their endorsement. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) both agreed to the plan as a basis for negotiations.

McConnell Refuses to Sign On

When it comes to the country’s top Republicans, it is a very different story. Even as more and more key rank and file Republican Senators have signaled their approval, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has still refused to embrace the bipartisan plan.

For months McConnell repeatedly claimed Democrats were the sole reason there was not a proposal because they would not compromise with Republicans. In reality, both sides were guilty of not budging from the plans they wanted.

Now that Democrats have agreed to make concessions and strike an agreement, McConnell is refusing to do the same. Still, the Senate leader continued to call for bipartisanship last week while also proposing his own plan that breaks drastically with top Democratic priorities.

McConnell’s plan, which is very similar to the previous bill he already brought to the floor in recent months that has now failed to pass twice, also lacks numerous provisions Democrats have made clear must be in any legislation they agree to.

Most significantly, McConnell’s proposal does not include any federal unemployment benefits, despite the fact that he knows that extending federal joblessness aid is a dealbreaker for Democrats.

Even more perplexing is the fact that extended joblessness is also something Republicans have generally agreed to, though they differ on how much benefits should be allocated.

Trump’s Role in Stimulus

Despite McConnell’s insistence, even some of the staunchest Republicans have said his plan is not a good idea.

On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-Sc.) told reporters that while he would support what the leader wants to propose but, “it doesn’t have any Democratic support. I’m tired of doing show votes here.”

Graham also said that he supports the $908 billion bipartisan deal. and added that he has talked to President Donald Trump about the plan “extensively.” As for Trump, he has been largely quiet and uninvolved in the most recent round of negotiations.

He has largely delegated the process to McConnell, who has used the position to push for the proposal he wants, arguing last week that Trump would veto the $908 billion deal. However, McConnell’s claims seem to be at odds with comments from Graham and other key Republicans.

On Sunday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the lawmakers leading the bipartisan deal, told Fox News that Trump has in fact indicated he would sign onto the $908 billion proposal. 

Trump, for his part, has offered vague mixed messages to the public. When asked by a reporter Thursday if he supported “this bill,” Trump said he would, though it was not clear which proposal he meant. A spokesperson later clarified that the president had meant McConnell’s plan, that does not mean he would veto a bigger one if it was sent to his desk.

Government Funding Bill

While many have said this week is basically make-or-break for any hopes of a stimulus before Biden takes office, there have also been talks among leadership of tacking the bill onto the massive year-end spending package.

At the end of every calendar year, Congress must pass a bill to fund the government through the next fiscal year. If they do not pass that legislation by the slotted deadline, which this year is Dec. 11, the federal government will shut down.

Congressional leaders have agreed in principle to a massive $1.4 trillion omnibus bill, but there are still some details that are being worked out, including President Trump’s demand for the border wall funding and disputes over a Veterans Affairs health funding cap, among other things.

Notably, given the number of differences remaining on this spending bill as well as a coronavirus relief bill, it has been reported that members will likely pass a one-week stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown and give themselves another week to sort everything out.

Meaning that if the stimulus bill is incorporated into this much larger spending bill, Congress will also have another week to find common ground there as well. It’s unclear if an agreement will be reached after months of deadlock.

If they do not agree on something either this week or next week, assuming they approve this stopgap extension, it is almost certain there will not be another stimulus bill until president-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Biden has said it will be a priority of his to pass a stimulus package regardless of whether or not Congress approves this $908 billion one, that would still mean Americans would have to go more than a month without the desperately needed aid.

Unless federal unemployment programs and evictions moratoriums are extended, upwards of 12 million people are subject to lose all their benefits entirely by the end of the year, and as many as 6.7 million renter households — or roughly 19 million people — will risk being evicted in the coming months. 

Defense Funding Bill

While both the stimulus proposal and the government funding bill will likely be up in the air for another two weeks, there is at least one vote Congress is expected to hold soon, the annual bill that funds the Department of Defense.

That bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is set to be voted on by the House tomorrow and the Senate sometime later this week. While it is expected to pass both chambers with huge bipartisan majorities, the problem here lies with President Trump.

Despite the fact that the NDAA is a bipartisan bill that has been signed into law for 59 straight years, Trump has threatened to veto the $740 billion bill unless Congress agrees to repeal Section 230 — a completely unrelated 1996 law that gives social media companies the ability to moderate posts on their platforms without liability. 

Trump has recently argued that the section is a threat to national security. However, he has not provided any evidence for this claim. He also has not given any other reasons why he will veto the bill that funds the military and gives raises to troops and military readiness unless Congress repeals a totally unrelated legal shield for social media companies.

Many believe he simply is angry that Twitter has been flagging his tweets for spreading misinformation about the election, and as a result, no such repeal or amendment of the section is included in the current version of the NDAA set to be approved by both chambers this week.

Notably, if Trump does veto the bill, it is very possible he will be overridden. House Democrats have said they will have a two-thirds majority in the House to override the veto, and many Republicans in the Senate have also signaled they would vote to override.

Even if they fail to override the veto, the bill could easily be passed again when Biden takes office in January. Still, this will be a key moment to watch because if Trump’s veto is overridden, it would be a massive rebuke that comes right as he is no longer about to be president.

In addition to not including the Section 230 repeal, the bill contains other provisions that Trump has openly opposed. This is removing Confederate names from army bases — a measure Trump separately threatened to veto over in June but has not mentioned in recent months. The bill is also taking aim at other Trump policies like his troop withdrawals and border wall. 

Trump, for his part, has spent most of his free time railing against the election outcome and continuing to spread false claims, and it is currently unclear how he will ultimately fit into Congress’ schedule as it rushes to wrap up the session before the December holidays.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Reuters)

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Jan. 6 Committee Prepares Criminal Charges Against Steve Bannon for Ignoring Subpoena

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The move comes after former President Trump told several of his previous aides not to cooperate with the committee’s investigation into the insurrection.


Bannon Refuses to Comply With Subpoena

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced Thursday that it is seeking to hold former White House advisor Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena.

The decision marks a significant escalation in the panel’s efforts to force officials under former President Donald Trump’s administration to comply with its probe amid Trump’s growing efforts to obstruct the inquiry.

In recent weeks, the former president has launched a number of attempts to block the panel from getting key documents, testimonies, and other evidence requested by the committee that he claims are protected by executive privilege.

Notably, some of those assertions have been shut down. On Friday, President Joe Biden rejected Trump’s effort to withhold documents relating to the insurrection.

Still, Trump has also directed former officials in his administration not to comply with subpoenas or cooperate with the committee. 

That demand came after the panel issued subpoenas ordering depositions from Bannon and three other former officials: Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, and Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel.

After Trump issued his demand, Bannon’s lawyer announced that he would not obey the subpoena until the panel reached an agreement with Trump or a court ruled on the executive privilege matter.

Many legal experts have questioned whether Bannon, who left the White House in 2017, can claim executive privilege for something that happened when he was not working for the executive.

Panel Intensifies Compliance Efforts

The Thursday decision from the committee is significant because it will likely set up a legal battle and test how much authority the committee can and will exercise in requiring compliance.

It also sets an important precedent for those who have been subpoenaed. While Bannon is the first former official to openly defy the committee, there have been reports that others plan to do the same. 

The panel previously said Patel and Meadows were “engaging” with investigators, but on Thursday, several outlets reported that the two — who were supposed to appear before the body on Thursday and Friday respectively —  are now expected to be given an extension or continuance.

Sources told reporters that Scavino, who was also asked to testify Friday, has had his deposition postponed because service of his subpoena was delayed.

As far as what happens next for Bannon, the committee will vote to adopt the contempt report next week. Once that is complete, the matter will go before the House for a full vote.  

Assuming the Democratic-held House approves the contempt charge, it will then get referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the matter before a grand jury.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)

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Senate Votes To Extend Debt Ceiling Until December

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The move adds another deadline to Dec. 3, which is also when the federal government is set to shut down unless Congress approves new spending.


Debt Ceiling Raised Temporarily

The Senate voted on Thursday to extend the debt ceiling until December, temporarily averting a fiscal catastrophe.

The move, which followed weeks of stalemate due to Republican objections, came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) partially backed down from his blockade and offered a short-term proposal.

After much whipping of votes, 11 Republicans joined Democrats to break the legislative filibuster and move to final approval of the measure. The bill ultimately passed in a vote of 50-48 without any Republican support.

The legislation will now head to the House, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said members would be called back from their current recess for a vote on Tuesday. 

The White House said President Joe Biden would sign the measure, but urged Congress to pass a longer extension.

“We cannot allow partisan politics to hold our economy hostage, and we can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,’’ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Under the current bill, the nation’s borrowing limit will be increased by $480 billion, which the Treasury Department said will cover federal borrowing until around Dec. 3.

The agency had previously warned that it would run out of money by Oct. 18 if Congress failed to act. Such a move would have a chilling impact on the economy, forcing the U.S. to default on its debts and potentially plunging the country into a recession. 

Major Hurdles Remain

While the legislation extending the ceiling will certainly offer temporary relief, it sets up another perilous deadline for the first Friday in December, when government funding is also set to expire if Congress does not approve another spending bill.

Regardless of the new deadline, many of the same hurdles lawmakers faced the first time around remain. 

Democrats are still struggling to hammer out the final details of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending agenda, which Republicans have strongly opposed.

Notably, Democratic leaders previously said they could pass the bill through budget reconciliation, which would allow them to approve the measure with 50 votes and no Republican support.

Such a move would require all 50 Senators, but intraparty disputes remain over objections brought by Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.), who have been stalling the process for months.

Although disagreements over reconciliation are ongoing among Democrats, McConnell has insisted the party use the obscure procedural process to raise the debt limit. Democrats, however, have balked at the idea, arguing that tying the debt ceiling to reconciliation would set a dangerous precedent.

Despite Republican efforts to connect the limit to Biden’s economic agenda, raising the ceiling is not the same as adopting new spending. Rather, the limit is increased to pay off spending that has already been authorized by previous sessions of Congress and past administrations.

In fact, much of the current debt stems from policies passed by Republicans during the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax overhaul. 

As a result, while Democrats have signaled they may make concessions to Manchin and Sinema, they strongly believe that Republicans must join them to increase the debt ceiling to fund projects their party supported. 

It is currently unclear when or how the ongoing stalemate will be resolved, or how either party will overcome their fervent objections.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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California Makes Universal Voting by Mail Permanent

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California is now the eighth state to make universal mail-in ballots permanent after it temporarily adopted the policy for elections held amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 


CA Approves Universal Voting by Mail

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill Monday requiring every registered voter in the state to be mailed a ballot at least 29 days before an election, whether they request it or not.

Assembly Bill 37 makes permanent a practice that was temporarily adopted for elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The law, which officially takes effect in January, also extends the time mail ballots have to arrive at elections offices from three days to seven days after an election. Voters can still choose to cast their vote in person if they prefer.

Supporters of the policy have cheered the move, arguing that proactively sending ballots to registered voters increases turnout.

“Data shows that sending everyone a ballot in the mail provides voters access. And when voters get ballots in the mail, they vote,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), said during a Senate committee hearing in July.

Meanwhile opponents — mostly Republicans — have long cast doubts about the safety of mail-in voting, despite a lack of evidence to support their claims that it leads to widespread voter fraud. That strategy, however, has also faced notable pushback from some that a lot of Republicans who say it can actually hurt GOP turnout.

Others May Follow

The new legislation probably isn’t too surprising for California, where over 50% of votes cast in general elections have been through mail ballots since 2012, according to The Sacramento Bee. Now, many believe California will be followed by similar legislation from Democrats across the country as more Republican leaders move forward with elections bills that significantly limit voting access.

Newsome signed 10 other measures Monday changing election and campaign procedures, including a bill that would require anyone advocating for or against a candidate to stand farther away from a polling place. Another bill increases penalties for candidates who use campaign funds for personal expenses while a third measure increases reporting requirements for limited liability corporations that engage in campaign activity.

“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections integrity and transparency,” Newsom said in a statement.

“Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic and today we are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election.”

The news regarding California came just in time for National Voter Registration day today, giving Americans another reminder to make sure they’re registered in their states. For more information on how to register, visit Vote.gov or any of the other resources linked below.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (Los Angeles Times) (The Sacramento Bee)

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