Congress just approved a 2-day funding extension to buy more time for stimulus negotiations, barely voting to avoid a shutdown

By Joseph Zeballos-Roig

Congress just approved a two-day funding extension to keep the government open — and buy more time in a last-ditch effort to strike an elusive deal on a $900 billion federal rescue package by midnight Sunday.

The stopgap spending bill was quickly authorized in both the House and Senate on Friday evening. It cleared the House in a vote of 320-60 with the overwhelming majority of "no" votes coming from Republicans.

Sen. Bernie Sanders briefly delayed the proceedings in the Senate to register another call for $1,200 direct payments but withdrew his objection after a quick speech, and the vote continued. Under Senate rules to expedite proceedings known as unanimous consent, legislation requires support from every senator.

Trump still has to sign the spending bill. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The vote capped the end of a week which saw a bipartisan group of senators introduce emergency spending legislation spliced in two. The $748 billion package formed the cornerstone of talks between Congressional leaders, and they picked up speed starting on Tuesday

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer failed to reach an agreement on a $900 billion relief plan this week. The group cited ongoing progress over the past few days. It's expected to include $300 federal unemployment benefits, small business aid, and $600 stimulus checks for Americans among other measures.

In a sign that a deal was not coming on Friday evening, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there were "still some significant issues outstanding."

The Maryland Democrat scheduled a House vote for Sunday at 1pm at the earliest — and lawmakers could have only hours to go over a possible relief package and a broader government funding bill which merged together could amount to $2 trillion.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said earlier on Friday he would oppose the stopgap spending bill unless he received more details about the stimulus checks. But later in the day, Hawley indicated his concerns were addressed and he would not oppose the short-term spending bill.

"I have been assured by Senate GOP leadership that #COVID direct assistance to working people IS in the #covid relief bill under negotiation & will remain," he tweeted. "And on that basis, I will consent to a brief continuing resolution to allow negotiations to conclude."

Read more: Congress is hours away from a crucial spending deadline to fund the government. Here's how a shutdown would affect you if lawmakers don't act tonight.

Leaders in both parties came out against the idea of allowing government funding to lapse on Friday as well. McCarthy said, "I'm not for a shutdown in any shape or form." That sentiment was echoed by Hoyer, who said, "we're going to keep the government open."

Bill Hoagland, a budget expert and senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said a possible shutdown that starts Monday would cause many federal agencies to begin scaling back their operations and order nonessential personnel home.

"A weekend shutdown, we've had them before," Hoagland said in an interview. "They are not as nearly as disruptive as it would be if it began during the workweek for the American public."

A stimulus deal reached by late Friday would be 'a triumph of hope over experience'

Congressional leaders are struggling to close policy disagreements which have hobbled negotiations for several months. They are scrambling to settle those differences in a matter of days, and the talks are set to slip into the weekend.

Sen. John Thune, the second-ranked Senate Republican, said anticipation of a deal struck by Friday evening would be "a triumph of hope over experience" and suggested a vote on a relief package could come early next week.

"I was thinking best case scenario of getting something voted on was going probably to be Sunday but it may be later than that," Thune told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The hangups appear to include the details around a fresh round of stimulus payments for Americans, emergency aid to states and municipalities, and the Federal Reserve's lending powers. But Congressional leaders are still citing continued progress in the talks.

During a speech on the Senate floor on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was "even more optimistic right now than I was last night" about reaching an agreement and added negotiations "remained productive."

"The Senate will be right here until an agreement is passed, whenever that may be," he said.

The scope of the Federal Reserve's emergency lending programs is emerging as a last-minute sticking point in the fast-moving talks. Republicans led by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are seeking to cut off the central bank's lending ability past December 31, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin set in motion last month.

Toomey, the incoming chair of the Senate Banking Committee, called it "a bright red line" for him in the relief legislation earlier this week. Those programs have backstopped the economy, supporting markets for corporate bonds and providing loans to state and local governments as well as medium-sized businesses.

But Democrats argue the move would stymie President-elect Joe Biden's ability to stabilize the economy during a prolonged downturn. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell also previously said he would continue the programs into next year, but the Trump administration stepped in to end them after Dec. 31.

Congress is running up against more deadlines that could have more dire implications for many Americans if it fails to strike a deal, get Trump's signature and enact it into law soon. Around 14 million people are threatened with the loss of unemployment aid within two weeks if certain federal programs are not renewed.