Bipartisan group struggles to finalize Covid-19 deal as leaders look to spending bill as last chance for relief
Posted December 11, 2020 3:12 p.m. EST
CNN — A bipartisan group of senators is struggling to finalize negotiations over a massive package once viewed as the best bet in Congress to give relief to Americans suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, putting pressure on congressional leaders to take matters into their own hands ahead of a critical deadline next week.
The senators, along with a handful of House members, have engaged in negotiations for days as they try to finalize a $908 billion spending package that they hoped would pressure Congress to break a stalemate that has persisted for months.
But the group has failed to reached an agreement on a central issue critical for Republican support: Providing protections from lawsuits for businesses, universities and other entities that opened during the pandemic. Republicans in the group say there needs to be an agreement on liability protections in order for them to sign off on a top Democratic priority: $160 billion for aid to state and local governments.
Now congressional leaders must soon decide which items to roll into a funding bill to keep the government open past next week, discussions that top senators say have already begun.
And in the group of senators, there are talks about ditching those two sticking points and signing off on the rest of the provisions, an idea favored by Republicans but one that Democrats have balked at.
"Nothing is coming out," said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia as he steamed out of the Senate on Friday.
Republicans, however, see it differently, with one key GOP negotiator suggesting that they should get take the $748 billion they have already agreed to in the talks.
"The good news is we've agreed on a whole host of things," said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican of Utah, noting 10 issues the group has signed off on. "So we have about $748 billion of the package agreed to, which is really extraordinary. And we continue to work on state and local and liability, those two are linked."
Whether they punt on the two issues, Romney said: "Time will tell."
A key Democratic negotiator, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, sounded pessimistic Friday a deal could be reached on the liability issue.
"We've had an eight-month impasse around liability issues and it is proving to be extremely difficult to close that distance," Coons told CNN. While he said it's a "major accomplishment for this group" to put together a "robust package" that has "very broad support," he said he didn't know if they would have to ditch the sticking point, something that could lead to the collapse of the fragile compromise.
Among the provisions the group has agreed on: $300 in weekly jobless benefits for 16 weeks, $300 billion in small business loans, $35 billion for health care providers and $3.4 billion for grants to states and cities for vaccine distribution.
Indeed, it will ultimately be the congressional leadership's call on what provisions to advance -- but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been pushing hard for state and local aid, arguing cash-strapped states and cities are at risk of laying off scores of workers, including first responders and teachers, if they don't get aid from Washington.
But Republicans say that many states are using the funds to help with their poorly managed budgets, criticism that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell levied on Friday.
"In what universe should emergency aid for small business be contingent on massive bailouts for state governments with no linkage to actual needs," McConnell said on the floor.
Schumer fired back.
"If the Republican leader would only back off maximalist demands on corporate immunity, we could get something done," Schumer said in his floor remarks.
McConnell has suggested negotiators drop those two provisions and renegotiate next year and focus on a narrow package now, an idea that Schumer and Pelosi have rejected.
That has all put pressure on congressional leaders to decide whether to include some provisions in a must-pass $1.4 trillion funding bill to keep the government open past next Friday.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune said Friday "there's some discussion" ongoing between congressional leaders and top appropriators about "all that going" into the omnibus funding bill. He even floated the idea of including a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to individuals into the funding bill, an idea that has wide support but would drive up the price tag by $350 billion.