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Threat of another government shutdown hangs over Washington as Covid relief talks drag on

Congressional leaders had set a Friday deadline to approve a $900 billion pandemic relief deal and tie that proposal to a $1.4 trillion funding package before the federal government run outs of money at midnight. But now they are set to blow right past that deadline.

With no quick resolution in sight, lawmakers are gearing up to work through the weekend. And a key question looms: Will they will be able to avert a government shutdown as the clock ticks down to midnight?

Hill leaders are confronting problems on multiple fronts. There are key outstanding issues that have not been resolved in the talks, including a push by Republicans to restrict the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority that has sparked intense pushback 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 said on Friday that he would object to any efforts to pass stop-gap bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, to avert a shutdown until he gets details of what’s in the bill and assurances of what’s in there.

“It’s beginning to reach the point of absurdity. … I’m not prepared to sign off on a CR until I know what’s going on,” Hawley said.

Most lawmakers believe the two sides will agree to extend government funding for a few more days while relief talks continue. But this is Congress, where even the easy things can be hard to do.

Senate GOP leaders have been openly talking about how it may be necessary to pass a stopgap bill — called a continuing resolution, or CR — to extend the shutdown deadline for a brief window of up to 48 hours, though Democratic leaders have so far been unwilling to embrace that call in an effort to pressure Republicans to finalize a relief deal.

To pull off passage of a short-term funding bill just hours before midnight, it would require bipartisan cooperation and all 100 senators to agree to schedule a vote. At the moment, that cooperation is lacking, top Republicans say.

On the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “talks remain productive” and that he believes a deal “is very close at hand.”

But there are many more issues to sort out before the two sides can secure an economic rescue package in the final days of the 116th Congress and after months of bitter stalemate.

“It’s a little bit of whack-a-mole, you know, whack it here and something else pops up,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “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.”

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.

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

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.

Hawley went to the Senate floor on Friday and asked for unanimous consent to pass a bill to provide direct payments of $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples, but the push was blocked by GOP Sen. Ron Johnson who objected, citing concerns over cost and the debt.

The Missouri senator signaled that the effort isn’t over, however, saying, “this is not the end of this fight” and noting that Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has also been making a push for larger checks than what is currently expected to be included in the deal, “will be back in a matter of hours to ask for this same measure, again.”

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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