Despite COVID crisis, Congress seeks to do its day job

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., left, and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., right, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 24, 2020, on the extension of federal unemployment benefits. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Even as lawmakers stumble in their quest to pass another coronavirus response measure, both the House and Senate sought to return to some semblance of normal business this week, passing annual must-do measures on spending and defense policy despite the challenges of legislating during a pandemic.

On Friday, the House passed a $259 billion funding bill for foreign aid and the Interior, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs departments along party lines. The measure is the first annual spending measure to pass either the House or Senate this year, but it has scant chance of becoming law, serving instead as a springboard for negotiations down the line.

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The annual process of appropriating federal spending — which has been a refuge of bipartisan deal-making during Trump's presidency — has been eclipsed this year by coronavirus relief efforts. But funding the government remains the biggest must-do item for lawmakers on a legislative agenda that, due to the virus, has been trimmed back to the essentials.

Friday's spending legislation is studded with $38 billion in emergency funding that violates the spirit of last year's nearly-forgotten budget and debt accord, along with other provisions that are controversial with Republicans, but many of its nuts and bolts elements were generated in the Appropriations Committee's tradition of bipartisan collaboration.

“The bipartisan budget agreement that was made last year has been completely ignored. Not only do these bills increase deficit spending, they include reckless partisan language," said Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, top Republican on the Appropriations panel. "I hope that we can get back on track and send bills to the President that he can sign into law.”

Action on the measure followed passage by both the House and Senate this week on the annual defense bill, which has been passed every year since the Kennedy era.

On the defense measure, both the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-held Senate defied a veto threat from President Donald Trump to pass a defense bill with Democratic-drafted language to remove the names of Confederate officers from American military bases such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. Both House and Senate measures call for $741 billion for the military.

The Senate's 86-14 vote suggests more than enough support to override a potential Trump veto in a post-election lame-duck session. The president is pushing Republicans to reconsider their support.

The House approved its version on Tuesday by a veto-proof margin of 295-125. Any veto confrontation would come after the election, but passage of the measure in December is needed in order to guarantee a 3% pay raise for the troops.

The White House said in a statement this week that it supports the overall spending figure but says it “strongly objects” to the edict to force the military to strip bases of their Confederate names.

In an unusual twist, the House Armed Services panel, chaired by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., voted to name the annual measure for its much respected top Republican, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of the term.

On the annual spending bills, this week's 224-189 House vote — and a vote next week on a larger measure combining seven spending bills into one — is likely to represent a high point for the year. None of the bills have a chance to become law before Election Day. And if Trump loses the election, Democrats are likely to wait until the Biden administration is in place before wrapping up the annual bills, which fund the annual operations of federal Cabinet agencies.

Among the many provisions in the legislation is $10 billion in emergency foreign aid funding for the U.S. to help poorer nations respond to the coronavirus scourge.

The Senate Appropriations panel canceled plans for drafting its 12 annual bills after Democrats served notice they would offer amendments on COVID relief and policing reform that Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., deemed too politically troublesome.

Either way, the real action on Capitol Hill involves the upcoming effort to pass a fifth bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill, which is stuck in the Senate, where GOP discord is running high. As a result, Congress is likely to return to Washington in September to handle a stopgap funding bill that would last until December to prevent a campaign season government shutdown.