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Capitol Hill talks intensify over Covid-19 relief deal but major sticking points remain

Posted December 3, 2020 3:48 p.m. EST
Updated December 3, 2020 4:02 p.m. EST

Capitol Hill talks intensify over Covid-19 relief deal but major sticking points remain

— High-level negotiations over an economic stimulus package are intensifying as congressional leaders and top senators are pushing to reach a major agreement that has eluded Washington for months.

For much of the year there has been partisan bickering and negotiations that have broken down repeatedly, but momentum is finally building -- as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are in discussions over a possible $908 billion deal pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers -- and lawmakers are trying to attach an agreement to a massive funding proposal to avoid a government shutdown by December 11.

But even as Pelosi and McConnell spoke Wednesday about their shared goal to finalize an agreement, there are still many landmines to navigate and major divisions between the two parties. Aides acknowledge that they aren't there yet. Right now, the $908 billion framework is little more than a one-pager. And, the divisions over state and local funding and liability protections are still very much alive.

The goal is to add something similar to the bipartisan proposal -- which includes funding for state and local governments, protections from lawsuits, extending the Paycheck Protection Program, among other matters -- to the must-pass government funding bill. But it remains a major question just how much of that proposal would ultimately be included in the spending bill -- if anything at all. And passing a short-term funding bill to punt on both the stimulus and a long-term government funding bill remained a distinct possibility as of Thursday afternoon.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told CNN that he's pushing to include recovery legislation — potentially $900 billion -- to the $1.4 trillion package to keep the government open.

"That'd be a worthy goal," Shelby said of tying the two together to pass it by next week. "That's our goal now. I don't know if we will get there."

Talks are expected to continue throughout the weekend. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that he wants to see a funding deal come together by Saturday evening in order to meet next Friday's deadline.

McConnell has been cool to the bipartisan proposal, largely because of the $160 billion in funding for state and local governments that many Republicans oppose, and is instead circulating a plan that resembles a $500 billion proposal he has previously sought to advance in the Senate. McConnell's plan has the support of the White House.

During a closed-door meeting in his office with four key GOP negotiators, McConnell didn't tip his hand about how high he is willing to go and what elements of the proposal he's willing to embrace. Instead, the GOP senators walked the Republican leader through aspects of a bipartisan $908 billion proposal that has become a focus of the stimulus talks.

"We continue to work with our Democrat colleagues and to refine our proposal. And we're getting more and more support from Republicans and Democrats," said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, after he left the McConnell meeting. "So, I'm hopeful, we'll make progress I'm sure there are people who would like to take the pieces of what we've done and perhaps apply it to an omnibus bill or a continuing resolution. That's an option but we're, we're continuing to negotiate an entire package that includes the full $908 billion."

McConnell, however, was careful not to make any commitments one way or the other.

"What we were able to do was just kind of present the whole proposal so no commitments back and forth -- but just kind of an explanation and walk through as to where we are," said Sen Lisa Murkowski, who was at the meeting along with Sens. Bill Cassidy and Susan Collins.

The bipartisan group plans to continue to meet and refine their plan "so that we're going to be ready to go next week," Murkowski said.

A lot of Republican senators are skeptical of including any money on state and local governments. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, told CNN that he would be a "no" on anything that "bailed out states."

Many Republican states are actually doing better than they expected at this point, in part a reflection of the fact they did not follow as strict of guidelines to shutter businesses and tourism as some Democrat-run states did.

That's not to say Republicans can't get there, but they are going to demand some strings to any money going to states and localities that Democrats may not be able to sign off on. The latest McConnell proposal didn't include funding for state and local governments and that's a reflection of where their conference is.

But liability insurance to protect businesses, hospitals and others from lawsuits is still a major sticking point.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, has been working with Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illionis on this in an effort to find common ground, but it's been difficult to find agreement. Republicans want to avoid a scenario where massive, class-action lawsuits emerge as a result of Covid outbreaks. Democrats don't want to protect businesses that are shrugging responsibilities to provide safe working conditions for employees or customers amid the pandemic.

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