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Republicans battle over COVID-19 package's big price tag

Republican lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate approves two energy regulators, completing panel On The Money: Biden announces key members of economic team | GOP open to Yellen as Treasury secretary, opposed to budget pick | GAO: Labor Department 'improperly presented' jobless data Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary MORE (R-Ky.) want to keep the price tag of the next round of coronavirus relief legislation at $1 trillion, but that is looking like it will be a challenge.

The variety of proposals now being pushed by the Trump administration, GOP lawmakers and Democrats could easily push the new coronavirus relief bill beyond the $2 trillion mark, lawmakers and aides acknowledge.

McConnell is trying to get out in front of what he fears could turn into spending smorgasbord by trying to set a firm cap on the size of the package, according to Republican senators who attended a Tuesday briefing by the GOP leader and senior administration officials.

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But he’s drawing fire from conservatives within his ranks.

“It’s already spiraled out of control,” Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (R-Wis.) said after GOP senators met with White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names Trump administration revives talk of action on birthright citizenship MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFinancial groups applaud Biden Treasury pick Yellen US sanctions Chinese company for conducting business with Maduro regime Monumental economic challenges await Biden's Treasury secretary MORE and National Economic Council Director Larry KudlowLarry KudlowMORE to discuss the upcoming proposal.

Johnson said that “it just boggles my mind” that fellow Republicans think of a $1 trillion package as “real fiscal constraint” when the federal debt is more than $26 trillion and the deficit for 2020 is projected to hit $3.8 trillion.

The message from the GOP leader is that lawmakers will have to pick and choose among their top priorities and not simply cram in all that they can to ensure speedy passage of a bill that pleases everyone.

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Meadows meets with Senate GOP to discuss end-of-year priorities McConnell reelected as Senate GOP leader MORE (R-Ind.) said McConnell is pushing a $1 trillion cap on the new bill.

“That’s the figure we’d be looking at. The leader’s thrown that out there. I think that anything beyond that you’re going to get a lot of different Republicans finding a way [to say] that they can’t buy into it,” he said.

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But the debate over what to include in the legislation and what to set aside is already opening up divisions between the White House and GOP lawmakers and within the Senate Republican Conference.

The disagreements will make it tough to meet Mnuchin's goal of passing a bill by the end of the month, when beefed up unemployment benefits are due to expire. 

And fiscal conservatives including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul says Fauci owes parents and students an apology over pandemic measures Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Ky.), Johnson and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziRepublican Cynthia Lummis wins Wyoming Senate election Bottom line Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection MORE (R-Wyo.) are balking at the $1 trillion price target.

“We cannot use the crisis to justify opening the spending floodgates and borrowing from future generations to fund nonemergency priorities,” Enzi said on the Senate floor immediately after the lunch.

“I don’t know how we’re going to pay for what we got already,” Enzi said after the speech. “One of the new mechanisms here is, ‘I’ll give you everything you want if you give me everything I want,’ and that’s considered compromise,” he added.  

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE wants a payroll tax cut and $1,200 direct stimulus checks, while GOP lawmakers want to focus on funding for reopening schools, more money for advanced testing and some measure of enhanced unemployment benefits as well as employment-targeted tax incentives.

Some GOP lawmakers, led by Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyMurkowski: Trump should concede White House race Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-La.), also want to provide more relief to cash-strapped state and local governments.

McConnell said Tuesday morning that Republicans want to include another round of direct payments in the bill, but the idea ran into opposition during the lunch meeting.

“There was some support and some opposition, both, to the direct payments,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration MORE (R-Texas).

Cornyn said critics in the GOP conference argue that stimulus checks made more sense when Congress passed the CARES Act in March “when people literally were not getting paid” because of rolling quarantines. He said they make less sense now as workers return to their jobs or collect unemployment insurance.

The first round of stimulus checks included in the CARES Act was estimated to cost nearly $300 billion.

Some Republican senators argue that more discipline has to be exerted over what proposals are allowed in the bill, unlike the frenzied debate before the Senate passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which was slapped together over a few days.

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“Somebody did raise the point that to stay under a trillion dollars you’re going to be limited on how many things you can do,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win MORE (R-N.D.) after the lunch. “If you set a top-line number or a ceiling of a trillion, you’re going to be limited on how many $1,200 checks you send out and how much of a payroll tax cut you can provide. You might have to pick one.”

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.) compares another round of stimulus checks to loading up a “money cannon.”

At the same time, senior administration officials have pushed back against some Senate GOP proposals such as $25 billion in new funding for testing and $10 billion in new money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The administration and GOP lawmakers are also at odds over how much to spend to help colleges and schools reopen.

Meadows has said the GOP legislation will include $70 billion to help schools cope with thee coronavirus, while McConnell has pegged the figure at $105 billion.

One of the negotiators, Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGraham: Trump should attend Biden inauguration 'if' Biden wins The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread This week: Congress races to wrap work for the year MORE (R-Mo.), told reporters Tuesday that the White House has shifted closer to the Senate GOP position on testing but that more work needs to be done on the topic.

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Democrats, meanwhile, want nearly $1 trillion just in aid to state and local governments. They are rallying around a House-passed proposal that would cost $3 trillion.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Collins urges voters to turn out in Georgia runoffs MORE (N.Y.) said after meeting with administration officials Tuesday afternoon that they want to see the joint White House-Senate Republican proposal before starting to negotiate.  

"The Republican Senate Conference hasn’t come to an agreement, and the president and the Senate conference hasn’t come to an agreement. So we’re waiting for a bill and we will roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Schumer told reporters after the meeting.

The clamoring for different high-priced priorities is already causing discord within the Senate GOP conference.

Paul slammed Republican colleagues after Tuesday’s lunch for gearing up to pass another huge relief bill.

“The majority of Republicans are now no different than socialist Democrats when it comes to debt. They simply don’t care about debt and are preparing to add at least another trillion dollars in debt this month, combined with the trillions from earlier this summer,” Paul tweeted.