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Congress set for messy COVID-19 talks on tight deadline

Senators are bracing for a messy, down-to-the-wire fight over coronavirus relief legislation.

Congress returned to Washington last week with an already tight three-week time frame to come together on the next emergency COVID-19 package, all the while navigating significant policy differences and the growing pull of the election.

Lawmakers are hoping a looming deadline — the start of a four-week August recess — will drive both sides to the negotiating table and an eleventh-hour agreement.

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“I think it’s going to hit a quick crescendo and we’ll get it done,” said 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.). “I think it’s just going to get closer to the edge. ... My impression would be closer to the time when we’ll be recessing again.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Cornyn on Biden aides' undisclosed ties: 'The Senate is not obligated to confirm anyone who hides this information' Cornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report MORE (R-Texas) added that “we’re good at doing things when we have a deadline.”

So far, there are few signs of that.

After a week of closed-door talks and public bickering, Republicans left town without unveiling their proposal. Even as the administration and GOP leadership touted a “fundamental” deal and an “agreement in principle,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany indicated they were still haggling over one of the most contentious topics: unemployment insurance.

After one of the closed-door discussions, when a gaggle of reporters asked 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.) if it seemed like Republicans were far apart on core issues such as unemployment, the GOP senator interjected, “[Or] doing anything at all?”

“I mean, let’s get real basic. ... I’d say it’s gonna be tough. We have to get united behind something, and maybe when there’s something very tangible and on paper we will,” Cramer said.

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Members of GOP leadership brushed off questions about if Republicans should have started negotiating amongst themselves sooner or if they had concerns about the chances of getting a bipartisan deal given the difficulty of getting their own party on the same page.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSunday shows - Health officials warn pandemic is 'going to get worse' Republican inaugural ceremonies chairman: I hope the president attends Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE (R-Mo.) said he wasn’t worried but added, “you know, I've spent a couple of decades of thinking we should get everything done sooner, so.”

Republicans are now poised to unveil a proposal on Monday that includes a second round of stimulus checks, roughly $105 billion for schools, and a five-year shield from coronavirus lawsuits except in the case of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFive things to know about Georgia's Senate runoffs Obama chief economist says Democrats should accept smaller coronavirus relief package if necessary Memo to Biden: Go big — use the moment to not only rebuild but to rebuild differently MORE (R-Ky.), speaking in Kentucky on Friday, said negotiations with Democrats will start in earnest this week.

"Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks," he said when asked about a time frame.

That’s not guaranteed to put an end to the drama, as some GOP senators are already sounding alarm bells over the $1 trillion price tag being eyed by McConnell — a dollar amount that is all but guaranteed to inch upward after Republicans begin negotiations with Democrats.

“Until we clearly take a look at what we’ve already done ... until we redirect, repurpose what we haven’t already spent, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to be authorizing even a dime more,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Wis.).

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) added that he was “disappointed” the GOP bill was expected to give states more flexibility for the $150 billion already appropriated by Congress and would try to get it removed.

In another potential snag, Stephen MooreStephen MooreSunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Trump ally Stephen Moore: President 'going to leave the office triumphant' Sunday shows - Election results, coronavirus dominate headlines MORE, a conservative economist who is an informal adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE, said he is working with the House Freedom Caucus to get the payroll tax cut into the bill even after Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMonumental economic challenges await Biden's Treasury secretary Biden's Treasury pick will have lengthy to-do list on taxes On The Money: Initial jobless claims rise for 2nd week | Dow dips below 30K | Mnuchin draws fire for COVID-19 relief move | Manhattan DA appeals dismissal of Manafort charges MORE said it would not be included.

"We’re working with some of the members of Congress right now — in the Freedom Caucus in the House, especially — to try to insist that any phase four bill, if it’s going to get conservative support, needs to have at the very least a substantial payroll tax cut," Moore said.

He insisted there is “strong” support among House Republicans for this and noted that he had been in contact with Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), predicting that the group would “agitate” to get it in.  

The GOP machinating comes before additional hurdles once the administration and McConnell begin negotiations with Democrats. Republicans and Democrats have several significant policy differences, including unemployment insurance, school funding, food assistance, and more help for state and local governments.

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“To me that’s the bigger challenge,” Cramer said. “The bigger gap, obviously, is between Republicans and Democrats.”

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 and Mnuchin sat down with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObama chief economist says Democrats should accept smaller coronavirus relief package if necessary The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Collins urges voters to turn out in Georgia runoffs Protect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package MORE (D-N.Y.) last week, but both sides indicated that potential talks were largely on hold until Republicans came out with their proposal.

Congressional Democrats have used the public disagreements among Republicans to paint them as the reason talks have been slow going, arguing that the GOP is in “disarray” and “disorganized.”

“We can open our schools and our economy with testing, tracing, treating. We can put money in the pockets of the American people. We can honor our heroes with state and local funds. And they're missing in action,” Pelosi said during an interview with MSNBC.

Pelosi and Schumer noted in a joint statement that they had been expecting to be locked in negotiations throughout the weekend, adding that it was “simply unacceptable that Republicans have had this entire time to reach consensus among themselves and continue to flail.”

Some senators, however, warned that when it comes to negotiations with Congress, the start-and-stop nature laced with potential setbacks is just how it goes.

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"We all want things to move faster. ... [But] we have to have something that can get through the House and Senate, signed by the president, and there's a lot of different ideas floating out there," said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioVoters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump MORE (R-Fla.).

"Like everything else in this process ... it's gonna be loud, messy, appear to be almost doomed on many occasions," he added.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.