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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 McConnellPew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Pelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Progressives put Democrats on defense 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 JohnsonPelosi: Dropping 9/11-style Jan. 6 commission an 'option' amid opposition Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski launches Senate bid Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE (R-Wis.) said after GOP senators met with White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Stephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here MORE, 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 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 BraunSerious about climate change? Get serious about agriculture Exclusive: GOP senators seek FBI investigation into Biden Pentagon nominee A number of Republican lawmakers are saying no to COVID-19 vaccines 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 CruzUS has seen 45 mass shootings in the past month The Hill's 12:30 Report: Nearly half of U.S. adults partially or fully vaccinated Cruz no longer wearing mask in Capitol MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle Fauci on Tucker Carlson vaccine comments: 'Typical crazy conspiracy theory' MORE (R-Ky.), Johnson and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality Lummis adopts 'laser eyes' meme touting Bitcoin Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes 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 TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report 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 CassidyCalls grow for national paid family leave amid pandemic Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats Vivek Murthy confirmed as surgeon general 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 CornynIntelligence leaders push for mandatory breach notification law Senate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Application portal for venue grants down for five days with no updates 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 CramerBiden administration faces big decision on whether to wade into Dakota Access fight OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Senate GOP pushes back on list of participants in oil and gas leasing forum 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 ToomeySasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Philly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote 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 BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP 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 PelosiBiden angers Democrats by keeping Trump-era refugee cap Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Former state Rep. Vernon Jones launches challenge to Kemp in Georgia Schumer lays groundwork for future filibuster reform 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.