Trump signs bill averting government shutdown; fight on coronavirus aid drags on

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Donald Trump, facing a midnight deadline on Friday, signed a one-week extension of expiring federal funding to avoid a government shutdown and to provide more time for separate talks on COVID-19 relief and an overarching spending bill.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Building following a rainstorm on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

The Republican-led Senate passed the bill on Friday afternoon after the Democratic-majority House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the measure on Wednesday.

Without this legislation, an array of government programs faced partial shutdown, ranging from some airport operations to national parks and State Department activities.

With only a week before its next deadline on Dec. 18, Congress now will focus on passing a $1.4 trillion bill to keep federal operations running through September 2021.

If it fails to reach an agreement by then, Congress would either have to pass another stopgap funding bill or trigger government closures.

Meanwhile, negotiators were trying to reach a separate agreement on a new coronavirus aid bill, which they want to attach to the massive spending bill.

Months of deep disagreements remained between the two political parties over the size and shape of such a bill, which would help stimulate the U.S. economy and bolster efforts to battle COVID-19.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has been pushing for a provision to shield businesses from lawsuits, which he argued are growing in the midst of the pandemic.

Democrats largely oppose that measure as they fight for new federal funds for state and local governments that face laying off police, fire and public health officials due to decreased revenues. Many Republicans are balking at this initiative.

Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Friday threatened to block another stopgap funding bill next week — if one is needed — unless they got votes on legislation providing direct payments of $1,200 for adults and $500 for children to ease economic burdens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such onetime direct payments occurred earlier this year as part of emergency coronavirus relief legislation enacted in March.

Last spring, after approving more than $3 trillion in emergency aid, lawmakers had hoped that might be enough to address the worst public health crisis in modern history.

Instead, COVID-19 cases are now running rampant throughout the United States, which has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in the world, currently topping 293,000.

Sanders described in a speech on the Senate floor the long lines of people seeking food donations in his home state of Vermont and elsewhere.

“Economists tell us that working families today are in worse shape right now than any time since the Great Depression,” Sanders said, adding that millions of families “are scared to death that they are going to be evicted from their homes” because of joblessness during the pandemic.

At the end of this month, a moratorium on such evictions expires, as well as supplemental federal unemployment benefits.

Reporting by Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman