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Democrats, GOP appear far apart on COVID-19 relief deal

Democrats, GOP appear far apart on COVID-19 relief deal
© Bonnie Cash

Democratic leaders on Tuesday said there's been virtually no movement towards a deal on coronavirus relief legislation, accusing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Democrats' narrow chance to retain control after 2022 MORE (R-Ky.) of tanking the talks before they've started by insisting on strong, business-friendly liability protections.

"It seems to me that Sen. McConnell really doesn't want to get the agreement made," Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Senators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Tim Cook called Pelosi to say tech antitrust bills were rushed MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol.

Moments earlier, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats urge Biden to extend moratorium on student loan payments White House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill MORE (D-N.Y.) had huddled in the Speaker's office with the Trump administration's top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE and White House Chief of Staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsGOP governors embrace culture wars with White House in mind Tech industry pushes for delay in antitrust legislation Head of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report MORE.

But it was McConnell's comments earlier in the day that were on the Democrats' minds.

At a press conference, and later in an interview with CNBC, McConnell had warned that no coronavirus relief bill will pass the Senate without the strong liability protections Republicans had included in their $1 trillion aid package, which was unveiled Monday evening.

The provision is designed to protect businesses — including hospitals and other health care providers — from lawsuits filed by workers who contract the virus on the job.

Republican supporters of the language maintain it's a necessary step towards jump-starting the nation's shattered economy, by encouraging reluctant businesses to reopen.

“There is no chance of the country getting back to normal without it. No chance whatsoever. So as the Majority Leader I can tell you no bill will pass the Senate that doesn’t have the liability protection in it," McConnell said in an interview with CNBC's "Closing Bell" program.

“The Democrats need to understand that for the country to get back to normal we cannot have an epidemic of lawsuits on the heels of a pandemic," he added. "Unless you're grossly negligent or engage in intentional misbehavior, you'll be covered. And it will be in a bill that passes the Senate.”

Democratic critics of the liability language say it could force workers to return to unsafe conditions, risking their health, and then steal their powers to hold negligent employers responsible.

By insisting on that provision as part of any deal, Democrats warned, McConnell is ensuring that no deal is possible.

"What the leader said today sounded like a person who had no interest in having an agreement," Pelosi said. "And that was most unfortunate."

Schumer piled on, characterizing the GOP liability provision as "extreme" — and a non-starter on the Democratic side of the aisle.

"It favors corporations, we know that," Schumer said. "But it, for instance, it says all medical malpractice — Covid-related or not — all state medical malpractice is gone until 2024. It's a radical change of all liability law."

Schumer said he and Pelosi requested that Mnuchin and Meadows speak with McConnell to see if he "really meant that."

"Because that would mean that he's probably not interested in any bill at all," Schumer said.

Democrats are hardly the only critics of McConnell's $1 trillion emergency aid bill. Senate Republicans of all stripes are lining up against the package, meaning it almost certainly cannot pass through the Senate with a simple majority, let alone the 60 votes needed to defeat a Democratic filibuster.

The GOP opposition lends Democrats leverage in the debate, and they're using it to press for a much larger aid proposal, on par with the $3.4 trillion passed by House Democrats in May.

The Democrats said they expect to meet again with Mnuchin and Meadows on Wednesday.

Shortly afterwards, Mnuchin said he and Meadows had briefed McConnell, and were heading to the White House to brief President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE.

Mnuchin declined to lend an update, saying only that the talks were just at "the beginning."

Meadows was more specific, suggesting McConnell had not given any ground in the liability fight.

"I don't know that anything has been definitively ruled in or out, other than what Leader McConnell talked about: liability protection having to be in," Meadows said.

Leaving the Capitol a few minutes later, McConnell doubled down on his earlier comments.

"That will be in any bill that passes the Senate," he said.

Jordain Carney contributed to this story.