WASHINGTON - At least there won't be a government shutdown.
But as lawmakers straggle back to Washington for an abbreviated preelection session, hopes are dimming for another coronavirus relief bill — or much else.
Talks between top Democrats and the Trump administration broke off last month and remain off track, with the bipartisan unity that drove almost $3 trillion in COVID-19 rescue legislation into law this spring replaced by toxic partisanship and a return to Washington dysfunction.
Expectations in July and August that a fifth bipartisan pandemic response bill would eventually be birthed despite increased obstacles has been replaced by genuine pessimism. Recent COVID-related conversations among key players have led to nothing.
Democrats seem secure in their political position, with President Donald Trump and several Senate GOP incumbents lagging in the polls. Trump is seeking to sideline the pandemic as a campaign issue, and Republicans aren't interested in a deal on Democratic terms — even as needs like school aid enjoy widespread support.
Poisonous relationships among key leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows give little reason for confidence about overcoming obstacles on the cost, scope and details of a potential relief bill. Pelosi recently referred to Meadows as “whatever his name is," while the Meadows-run White House during a press briefing ran a video loop of Pelosi's controversial visit to a San Francisco hair salon.
All of this imperils the chances for another round of $1,200 direct payments delivered under Trump's name, the restoration of more generous unemployment benefits to those who've lost their jobs because of the pandemic, updates to a popular business subsidy program, and money to help schools reopen and states and local governments avoid layoffs.
“I personally would like to see one more rescue package, but I must tell you the environment in Washington right now is exceedingly partisan because of the proximity to the election," said GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at an appearance in Kentucky last week. “We’ve been in discussion now for the last month or so with no results so far. So I can’t promise one final package.″
McConnell had been a force for a deal but does not appear eager to force a vote that exposes division in his ranks.
Many Senate Republicans are also wary or opposed outright to another major chunk of debt-financed virus relief, even as GOP senators imperiled in the election like Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado plead for more. Republicans are struggling to coalesce around a unified party position — and that's before they engage with Democratic leaders, who are demanding far more.
The relationship between Pelosi and her preferred negotiating partner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, is civil but isn't generating much in the way of results, other than a promise to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month by keeping a government-wide temporary spending bill free of controversy. That measure is likely to keep the government running into December. It's likely to contain a bunch of lower-profile steps, such as an extension of the federal flood insurance program and a temporary reauthorization of spending from the highway trust fund.
The decision for a “clean,” controversy-free stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, means that both sides will forgo gamesmanship that uses the threat of a government shutdown to try to gain leverage. Trump forced a shutdown in 2018-2019 in a failed attempt to extract money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall, while Democrats lost a shutdown encounter in 2017 over legislation to help immigrants brought illegally to the country as children win permanent legal status.
"Now we can focus just on another relief bill, and we’re continuing to do that in good faith,” Vice President Mike Pence said Friday on CNBC.
But if talks continue to falter, there's little to keep lawmakers in Washington long, particularly with the election fast approaching.
The Senate returns on Tuesday to resume its diet of judicial and administration nominations. The House doesn't come back until Sept. 14 for a schedule laden with lower-profile measures such as clean energy legislation and a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Some Democrats are expected to continue to take advantage of remote voting and may not return to Washington at all.