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Bullet policy · Oct 12, 2020

Congress Passes Stopgap Measure, Relief Talks Resume

Congress has now passed and the President has signed a continuing resolution to keep the government open in the new fiscal year (FY), which started on October 1, 2020. The stopgap measure will allow federal science agencies to continue operating at FY 2020 budget levels. Decisions about FY 2021 appropriations bills have been deferred until December 11.

Pandemic relief negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House restarted earlier this month, after the House of Representatives passed a pared-down version of the Heroes Act. The revised stimulus package trims $1.2 trillion from the initially proposed $3.4 trillion measure, but Republican lawmakers said the $2.2 trillion price tag was still too high. “We’re in very near agreement on all the COVID things that matter,” said Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO). “What we’re not in agreement on is about $1 trillion worth of other things.”

The updated Heroes Act includes $2.9 billion in emergency relief for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is just short of the $3 billion allocated for the agency in the RISE Act - a measure endorsed by more than 300 higher education, research, industry groups, and associations, including AIBS. The latest House bill would allocate $2.587 billion for NSF’s Research and Related Activities and $300 million for the Education and Human Resources account. The measure also includes $1 million for a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study on the current understanding of the spread of COVID-19-related disinformation on the internet and social media platforms. Other notable provisions in the bill include:

  • $4.7 billion for the National Institutes of Health to expand COVID-19-related research.
  • $392 million to address coronavirus-related needs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • $20 million for the National Institute for Standards and Technology to support development and manufacturing of medical countermeasures and biomedical equipment and supplies to address the coronavirus.
  • $11.9 billion for higher education institutions.
  • $50 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate links between pollution exposure and the transmission and health outcomes of coronavirus in communities that have experienced disproportionate negative health outcomes.
  • $135 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support libraries and museums with costs and expenses associated with coronavirus.
  • $45 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service and $20 million for the National Park Service to respond to the pandemic.

Days after relief talks resumed, President Trump abruptly announced on Twitter on October 6 that he had ordered an end to relief negotiations until after the November election, rejecting the Democrats’ latest proposal and calling on the Senate to instead focus their attention on confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The decision drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers. “Now is not the time for the Congress to stop doing its work,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “Alaskans desperately need relief to help mitigate both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” Then on October 8, Trump announced that his Administration had once again resumed negotiations with congressional Democrats.

Disagreements persist between the White House and Congress on the price tag of the next stimulus package. Democrats continue to resist going below $2.2 trillion. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was initially willing to go up to $1.6 trillion, but on October 9, he proposed a slightly larger $1.8 trillion relief measure with additional funding for state and local governments and direct stimulus checks. The latest White House proposal drew bipartisan opposition, with Republican lawmakers criticizing the spending as too high and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) saying that the measure did not contain enough spending for unemployment insurance, schools, states and local government, and testing.

At one point, President Trump expressed support for a stand-alone legislation to send another round of $1,200 direct payments. That proposal has been rejected by Speaker Pelosi, who wants to pass a more comprehensive package. Senate Republicans on the other hand do not favor a comprehensive bill.

According to news reports, prospects for the next relief measure being passed before the elections look dismal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he plans to focus on confirmation hearings for the new Supreme Court nominee over the next few weeks and indicated that Republicans will “reengage” in relief talks after the elections.