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 BraunSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts Lawmakers aim for COVID-19 relief deal this week 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 CornynCOVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal 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 CramerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute 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 BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections 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 McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal 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 JohnsonBlumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections Democrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe 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 - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Moore expresses cautious optimism for 'v-shaped' recovery following jobs report Trump embraces jobs report signaling slowdown MORE, a conservative economist who is an informal adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran 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 MnuchinWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Sunday shows - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit 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 MeadowsMeadows says he wants Trump nomination speech 'miles and miles away' from White House Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit Pelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table MORE and Mnuchin sat down with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Sunday shows - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Schumer declines to say whether Trump executive orders are legal: They don't 'do the job' Schumer: Idea that 0 unemployment benefit keeps workers away from jobs 'belittles the American people' 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 RubioPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden 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.