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Congress ends its year under shadow of COVID-19

Lawmakers are rushing to wrap up end-of-year legislative business as they return to Washington this week by passing bills to prevent a government shutdown, renew defense programs and provide coronavirus relief - all while trying to avoid passing the coronavirus to each other.

Nearly a dozen members of the House and Senate tested positive for COVID-19 in the two weeks before Thanksgiving, underscoring the risks of having hundreds of lawmakers travel back and forth from all over the country and gather together in the Capitol while virus cases are surging nationally. And at least one other lawmaker, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), announced Monday that he tested positive.

House Democrats delayed returning to session until Wednesday and are urging members to stay in Washington over the weekend with an eye on wrapping up their December to-do list next week. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are temporarily suspending in-person caucus lunches after holding them with social distancing guidelines since May.

Congress has just about always faced a year-end legislative pileup around the holidays in recent years. But this time, lawmakers have to tackle thorny issues while navigating a pandemic and an unpredictable lame-duck president.

First, there's the annual defense authorization bill, which Congress has managed to pass every year for the past six decades.

Both the House and Senate passed versions earlier this year that included provisions to rename military bases honoring Confederate leaders. But President Trump has threatened to veto any bill with such a policy to remove the names of Confederates as both parties try to hammer out a bicameral measure that can still become law in a timely fashion.

The leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees struck a deal on spending allocations right before Thanksgiving, paving the way for reaching a broader agreement on a massive, all-encompassing spending package to keep the government funded past Dec. 11.

Numerous coronavirus economic relief measures established by the March CARES Act are also expiring this month, including an eviction moratorium and unemployment insurance benefits. A $600 weekly unemployment insurance supplement expired at the end of July, and congressional leaders and the Trump administration have struggled to compromise on how to renew those payments.

Lawmakers are also keen to provide investments for vaccine distribution and more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to assist small businesses.

A bipartisan group of senators is holding discussions on trying to get a deal on another round of coronavirus relief and see a government funding package as a potential legislative vehicle rather than a standalone bill. The talks have been ongoing for nearly two weeks, according to a source.

"Both sides are going to have to compromise. The Democrats aren't going to get what they want with their $2 trillion plan, and clearly the so-called skinny plan that Leader [Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] put out is not nearly enough to provide a bridge," Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the bipartisan group, said on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on Monday.

"It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress didn't act before the holidays," Warner added.

But the top congressional leaders with the most influence over any coronavirus relief package gave no signs of budging on Monday.

McConnell argued that Democrats had "lost leverage" in the negotiations after losing House seats.

"It's abundantly clear to everyone that the Speaker will not be getting to fundamentally transform American society in a socialist direction in exchange for more bipartisan relief," McConnell said in a Senate floor speech Monday.

"Leader McConnell's view ... seems to be that the only things that should be in this bill are things Republicans approve of. Even if the needs of the country, desperate needs of the country, are beyond the small list that Republicans might support. And that is not real compromise," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) countered moments later. 

While coronavirus relief struggles to get off the ground, more than a third of all coronavirus cases among the 33 members of Congress who have tested positive since March occurred within a two-week span leading up to Thanksgiving.

At least five House members were in Washington and voted on the House floor in the days before they tested positive before Thanksgiving.

Months into the pandemic, lawmakers nonetheless struggled to adhere to social distancing guidelines when the House was last in session before Thanksgiving.

Lawmakers of both parties who hadn't seen each other in weeks frequently gathered in groups on or near the House floor and greeted each other with fist bumps.

A notice from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) office announcing the changes to the floor schedule warned that members are "strongly discouraged from congregating on the House floor during votes and will be asked to exit immediately."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), 87, returned to the Senate on Monday after testing positive on Nov. 17. Grassley said he never had symptoms during his quarantine but "will continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing."

Others are still facing long-term effects weeks after contracting COVID-19. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) tested positive in September and said shortly before the Thanksgiving recess that she was still experiencing fatigue at times.

"The shortness of breath is not as acute as it was before, but I definitely, you know, walk up the stairs and I'm tired. Halfway through the day, I need to just take a break in the middle of the day. So hopefully that'll go away," Hayes told The Hill.

Jordain Carney contributed. 

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