Pelosi and McConnell look to break stimulus stalemate with key meetings

Pelosi and McConnell look to break stimulus stalemate with key meetings

Congressional leaders closed in on an agreement to provide a new tranche of coronavirus relief on Tuesday, haggling deep into the night over how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars before adjourning for the year.

“We’re making significant progress and I’m optimistic that we are going to be able to complete an understanding some time soon,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he left the Capitol after a day of furious negotiating. “We’re getting closer.”

Top lawmakers vowed that they would not head home for the year until they pass a coronavirus relief deal, the strongest signal yet that McConnell, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are on the verge of breaking the months-long stimulus stalemate. Congress has not passed a significant new round of aid since April.

“We’ve built a lot of trust, I think we are moving in the right direction,” McCarthy said.

While the congressional leaders did not publicly discuss details, their discussions were prompted by a $748 billion proposal from centrist senators to spend on small businesses education, vaccine distribution, health care and beefing up unemployment benefits. Republicans have said they want to jettison talks over a liability shield and $160 billion for state and local government, though Democrats have yet to concede defeat on the local funding issue.

The leaders met for more than two hours over the course of two meetings. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also joined by phone. Government funding expires on Friday, so negotiators could buy more time with another stop-gap spending bill if talks drag out.

“We’re exchanging paper and ideas back and forth making progress and hopefully we can come to an agreement soon,” Schumer said as the night came to a close.

The discussion on Tuesday centered mostly on topline numbers and what components will go in the year-end deal, according to a source familiar. Congressional leaders are hoping to attach their coronavirus deal to a massive omnibus bill that would extend government funding beyond the current Friday deadline.

Still, not everyone likes what they are hearing from the leadership suites. Progressives in the House have stepped up their demands that any coronavirus deal include stimulus checks along with supplemental unemployment benefits.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus took it a step further Tuesday night, with CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) raising the idea of opposing any bill that doesn’t include direct payments. CPC members on the call were receptive to the idea, according to multiple Democrats.

The group then sent out a whip notice to formally gauge how many of the roughly 100-member group would be willing to vote against a bipartisan relief deal that didn’t include stimulus checks. Responses are due back to CPC leadership by noon Wednesday. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are also still pushing for stimulus checks to be sent directly to individuals and families. President Donald Trump also wants direct payments to Americans.

The meetings were the first meaningful conversation between all four party leaders — known on Capitol Hill as the “four corners” — in months. The outreach comes with the window quickly closing to reach a much-needed agreement before lawmakers are scheduled to depart for the holidays at the end of this week.

Congressional leaders have struggled to pass any meaningful coronavirus relief legislation, despite the pandemic tightening its grip on the nation over the last several months.

The coronavirus has killed more than 300,000 Americans and sickened millions more. Hospitals across the country are sounding alarms as they reach full capacity, with more than 100,000 patients currently hospitalized with the virus. And millions of Americans remain unemployed or unable to pay their bills, with key relief provisions set to expire later this month.

And despite positive signs this week — including the first wave of vaccine doses being given to medical workers in the U.S. starting on Monday — experts predict this third coronavirus surge will likely be the deadliest yet.

Senior lawmakers in both parties are optimistic that McConnell and Pelosi will reach a deal on a coronavirus package, but no one seems to know exactly what form that will take — just that it will be decided in the next 24 hours or likely not at all.

Still, the logistics of how such a deal might move through Congress have started to come into focus.

House leaders plan to soon introduce the text of a $1.4 trillion omnibus to fund the government, the potential vehicle for any coronavirus deal. Coronavirus legislation could then be attached and Congress would break for the holidays.

But the same two issues that have long bedeviled Pelosi and McConnell — Republican opposition to additional funding for local governments coupled with Democratic resistance to liability protections for businesses — remain.

Republicans have suggested dropping those two matters, and a bipartisan Senate negotiating group did so on Monday as it presented a $748 billion compromise bill with support from members in both parties. The bipartisan group also introduced a separate proposal that included liability protections for businesses and $160 billion in local government aid — but only one Democrat from the bipartisan group, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, supported the idea.

Democratic leaders have not said they will relent on money for local governments, though they may have to in order to get a deal this week.

“It’s just my impression from the way the negotiating group separated those two issues, it seems to take Sen. McConnell’s advice to leave those to the side and do what we can,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally.

McConnell reiterated his suggestion to table those two topics on Tuesday, noting that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also opened the door to the idea over the weekend.

“We all know the new administration is going to be asking for yet another package,” McConnell said. “It’s not like we won’t have another opportunity to debate the merits of liability reform and of state and local government [assistance] in the very near future.”

Schumer has been critical of McConnell’s idea in recent weeks, saying state and local aid is key to any deal. But the New York Democrat wouldn’t say on Tuesday whether he’s open to dropping those demands for now.

While the bipartisan Senate proposal won’t be the final proposal, it did help break a stalemate that has persisted for months on Capitol Hill.

Until last week, McConnell had refused to consider any proposal that did not include liability protections for businesses and showed little appetite for going above a $500 billion relief bill Senate Republicans introduced earlier this year.

Pelosi, meanwhile, tried for months to negotiate with Mnuchin with little result. Democrats were demanding a relief bill of more than $2 trillion while Mnuchin would only go up to $1.8 trillion. Their talks fell apart just before the election and congressional leaders went weeks without showing any signs that they planned to address the coronavirus in the lame duck, despite a rapidly rising death toll and increasingly alarming economic conditions.

But the dozen centrist senators — with support from some moderate House members known as the Problem Solvers Caucus — helped jumpstart new talks by pushing out a $908 billion relief framework earlier this month.

The bipartisan Senate plan includes hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for small businesses, vaccine distribution, education and transportation as well as an extension of expiring unemployment provisions.

But some Republicans are concerned the bill text doesn’t reflect restrictions like the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from going to abortions, and the text may need to be altered, according to two people familiar with the situation.

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