I had not planned to provide a Washington Update today as the week in Congress was pretty sleepy and all eyes were focused on the campaigns. But yikes. When I heard the news about President Trump and FLOTUS having COVID-19, I was persuaded to change my mind. I’ll offer a quick summary of events this week, some political speculation about what the President’s infection may mean moving ahead (mostly questions at this point) and my plan for future Washington Updates until the election.
1. The Senate Passes Funding Bill to Avoid Government Shutdown/ COVID Funding Bill Remains Stalled
The federal fiscal year ended on Wednesday, September 30 at midnight. That day the Senate passed a bill (with a 84-10 bipartisan vote) to keep the government funded at last year’s level temporarily — a stopgap measure called a Continuing Resolution. The House passed the same bill last week with a bipartisan vote. The President signed the bill a few hours after the deadline – early Thursday morning – so that functioning and funding of the federal government continues uninterrupted. The bill expires December 11, after the election, leaving a lame duck session of Congress to deal with it.
In the House, Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) was absorbed in trying to come up with a last-minute deal with the White House to secure a long-awaited next COVID relief package. She met repeatedly with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who appears to be the White House’s lead on this, but did not achieve a final deal. So she turned to her Democratic colleagues in the House and passed a trimmed-down version of the HEROES Act – their COVID relief bill that passed several months ago, but made no headway in the Senate.
The revised bill that passed the House cuts the original HEROES bill funding about a trillion dollars, leaving it weighing in at $2.2 trillion. The White House had indicated it would go as high as $1.5 trillion, and the Senate Republicans had a hard time rallying around a $1 trillion bill. While no deal is in the offing, Speaker Pelosi indicated that she will continue talks with Sec. Mnuchin in hopes of a breakthrough. Might it be possible that the next COVID relief bill could be attached to the funding bill that must be passed by December 11? Well, it seems anything is possible in Washington these days.
The House is scheduled to leave town today for recess; at this point the Senate is scheduled to be in session next week, though that could change. The Amy Coney Barret confirmation hearing for Supreme Court is scheduled for the week of October 12 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both the House and Senate have indicated that even if they go into recess, they could be called back to Washington at any time.
2. President Trump Tests Positive for COVID-19: What Are the Implications?
Let me be clear: I have NO inside information on this one! I will offer my thoughts, reflections and mostly questions, as developments are fast paced and sure to overtake us all in the coming days. First, I think this throws all official DC business and both campaigns into a state of chaos. We know that aggressive contact tracing is underway and there are very likely many more officials, including Members of Congress, who will test positive. Note that Members of Congress do NOT get tested regularly as they come back and forth to Washington; nor are they required to wear masks when in congressional buildings (though most do, particularly Democrats). Also note that there have been multiple meetings this week with officials from the White House and Members of Congress – related to negotiations for the COVID relief package and the SCOTUS nomination of Amy Coney Barret. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has tested positive. He met with Amy Coney Barret last week; however, she has tested negative and is reported to have had the virus over the summer. Contact tracing will undoubtedly reveal additional infections.
In terms of the campaigns of the Presidential candidates, all bets are off. Of course, President Trump shared the debate stage with VP Biden on Tuesday, though he and Dr. Biden have tested negative. President Trump’s family was present at the debate and did not wear masks. They also travelled together on Air Force One. The President held a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday and a fundraiser in New Jersey last night. Last Saturday the President held an event to announce his nomination for SCOTUS in the rose garden, with many VIPs in attendance. Masks and social distancing were not part of the protocol at any of these events.
Here are some looming questions related to the politics of this situation:
- Will President Trump quarantine in the White House for the recommended 14 days?
- Will President Trump continue in-person rallies?
- Will there be more Presidential debates?
- Might a transfer of power occur if the President becomes increasingly symptomatic?
- Note that the succession order is as follows: VP Mike Pence (who has tested negative); Speaker Pelosi (who is 80 and met in person many times with Sec. Mnuchin and possibly Chief of
- Staff Mark Meadows and others from the White House) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the President pro tempore of the Senate and the most senior member of the Senate, who is 87.
- Will multiple Members of Congress test positive? If so, could it mean a delay in the confirmation hearing of SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barret, possibly pushing it into the lame duck session or beyond?
By the time you read this Update, we will know more, as more people are tested; results are made public and decisions are made. This has been such a year of uncharted territory; and here we are again.
3. Washington Update Schedule Until the Election
In general, I only write Washington Update when Congress is in session. This has become more and more difficult to actually discern, as schedules are fluid and important business is conducted when they are not technically in session. My plan as of today is that I will return with Washington Update after the election on November 13. Of course, plans change!
In the meantime, take care of yourself and your family and be well!
Jane E. West Ph.D.
Education Policy Consultant