Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., removes his face mask as he arrives for a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)

Negotiators report progress on long-delayed COVID aid bill

Negotiators report progress on long-delayed COVID aid bill

WASHINGTON — Top negotiators reported at least some progress on a long-delayed COVID-19 aid package Tuesday after a rare meeting of Capitol Hill’s four most senior lawmakers. The quartet, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, said they would reconvene Tuesday night in hopes of sealing an agreement soon.

“I think there’s progress,” reported House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as he left the session in Pelosi’s office. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin joined by phone.

The uptick in activity could be a sign that an agreement is near, though COVID-19 relief talks have been notoriously difficult and Pelosi continues to press for help for states and local governments whose budgets have been thrown out of balance by the pandemic. GOP leaders oppose the idea and say it’s the biggest sticking point from their perspective.

A top GOP negotiator said the leaders had essentially agreed to agree.

“We are still talking to each other and there is agreement that we are not going to leave here without the omni and the COVID package,” said McConnell, R-Ky., using Capitol Hill’s shorthand for a catchall, omnibus spending bill that would be paired together with the COVID relief measure and a variety of other end-of-session items.

The Kentucky Republican is playing a strong hand in the lame-duck session and is pressuring Democrats to drop a much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package. Several senior Democrats, including close allies of President-elect Joe Biden — who is eager for an agreement — have said they would go along now and fight for the aid next year.

McConnell says he’ll drop a demand for provisions shielding businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits, a key priority of McConnell. He is pressing a lowest-common-denominator approach that would drop the lawsuit shield idea for now if Democrats agree to drop the $160 billion state and local aid package.

“We can live to fight another day on what we disagree on,” McConnell said Tuesday. “But we ought to go forward with what we can agree on.”

Pelosi has insisted for months that state and local aid would be in any final bill, but as time is running out, Democrats appear unwilling to hold the rest of the package hostage over the demand.

“We’re not going home until this is done,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on CNN Tuesday morning. “We’ve got to get people a lifeline.”

Manchin is an architect of a bipartisan $748 billion aid package that is aimed at serving as a template for the leadership talks. Mnuchin supports a package with many similar elements, and any final deal is likely to contain money for struggling businesses, the unemployed, schools and vaccine distribution. There is also bipartisan support for transportation and transit assistance, funding for rural internet service, and help for the Postal Service, among other provisions.

There is disagreement over a potential second round of direct payments to individuals, a plan for $300-per-week bonus unemployment benefits, state and local aid, and the GOP-sought liability shield against COVID-19-related lawsuits.

Lawmakers also worked to finalize a yearend catchall funding package that will be the basis for the last significant legislation of the Trump presidency.

There’s a hoped-for deadline of midnight Friday to deliver the completed package to President Donald Trump, which is when a partial government shutdown would arrive with the expiration of last week’s temporary funding bill. But there’s no guarantee that the massive yearend measure will be completed in time. If the talks drag, further temporary bills could be needed.

Negotiations on the $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill are “essentially finished,” said a congressional aide participating in the talks. While details are closely held, “the status quo is prevailing.” That means Trump would get another $1.4 billion or so for a final installment to continue construction of his long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Republicans have succeeded in killing a $12 billion plan to break last year’s budget mini-agreement by using accounting manoeuvrs to pad veterans health care funding to accommodate big cost increases from expanding access to health care services from private providers. Instead, a different set of moves is being employed to provide for equivalent spending increases for other domestic programs.

The post-election lame-duck session is the last chance to wrap up the unfinished work this year, a goal of all involved, though they have been slow until now to forge the often-tricky compromises required to pull the measure together.

A state and local aid package was part of the almost $2 trillion CARES Act that passed the Senate unanimously in March. The $150 billion aid package to states and large cities evoked little controversy then, but many Republicans are adamantly against the idea now, though any additional aid would also go to smaller municipalities left out of the prior round.

Andrew Taylor, The Associated Press

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