Congress is scheduled to wrap up legislative business only days before Christmas by voting on a $2.3 trillion package of COVID-19 relief and government spending amid reports that coronavirus infections are spiking nationwide and as the first vaccines are being distributed.
The legislation – the product of furious last-minute negotiations that stalled passage for days – includes a mix of tax credits and direct cash payments, with nearly $1 trillion in COVID-related spending to address the still-wobbly economy and aid frontline healthcare workers.
In classic Washington fashion, the legislation mushroomed to more than 5,000 pages and included a host of non-COVID provisions –most notably, avoiding a government shutdown by including $1.3 trillion to fund federal programs until next fall.
With President Donald Trump scheduled to sign the year-end package into law, Washington will catch its breath for only a few days before the capital’s political attention turns to Georgia. That state is holding two runoff elections Jan. 5 that will decide whether Republicans maintain their narrow Senate majority. If Democrats win both runoff elections, the party would force a 50-50 Senate tie but give it a precarious majority because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes for the Democrats.
Polling in both Georgia Senate races shows the elections are too close to call.
If Democrats win, they will have total control of the government for the first time since 2009. But their margins in both the House and Senate would be narrow and likely trigger a series of intraparty battles between progressives and moderates over key policies, such as healthcare, immigration, infrastructure, taxes and more.
A Democratic Senate would aid the confirmation process for President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet. The party also could try to use fast-track legislative procedures, such as budget reconciliation, to approve sweeping policy reforms with simple majority votes, such as on healthcare, immigration and taxes. Still, virtually every substantial vote would be a political high-wire act for Democrats, with the defection of just a single moderate Democrat undermining the party’s control of the legislative agenda.
If Republicans keep their Senate majority, they would still likely confirm most of Biden’s Cabinet nominees, but on the GOP’s timetable. Republicans would mostly serve as a firewall, blocking Democrats from enacting their most far-reaching policy goals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also would likely fuel the Democrats’ intraparty squabbles, as he would effectively block most of the Democrats’ agenda and require that any legislation that passes be bipartisan.
With government funding completed until next fall, the first issue on Biden’s legislative agenda in 2021 would be fashioning another COVID-19 relief and stimulus package – this time pushing for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid for state and local governments. It’s not clear there would be much appetite in a Republican-controlled Senate for another COVID-19 bill in February or March after the government has already spent several trillion dollars in relief and stimulus funds.
But if the coronavirus death toll rises or the vaccine distribution stalls, the GOP might come under renewed pressure to support another round of stimulus funding.