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GOP under mounting pressure to strike virus deal quickly

Republican lawmakers faced with slipping poll numbers and economic indicators acknowledge they are under pressure to reach a quick deal with Democrats on a new coronavirus package.  

Armed with more leverage, Democrats will likely not agree to any deal unless it is closer to the $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May. Republican officials don’t see any advantages to drawing the battle out.

GOP senators say there are several significant factors that weigh in favor of reaching a deal soon. They include the expiration of the $600-a-week federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits, the expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions, the recent wave of new coronavirus infections in Sun Belt and Midwestern states, the fast-approaching start of the school year, and a wave of potential small-business closures predicted for the weeks ahead.

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“It has to be timely,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Rubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (R-Fla.) of the timeline for passing a measure.

“The goal is to get it done quickly,” he said, adding that “it takes time to deploy money for the testing” and noting that the last round of federal supplemental unemployment benefits are being sent this week.
“Everyone here should feel pressure because this is a rolling economic emergency we’re facing. Every day that goes by with headlines about how far apart we are injects negativity that has an economic consequence,” added Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisNorth Carolina — still purple but up for grabs Team Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (N.C.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, said he wants a deal concluded soon so that constituents don’t see a break in enhanced unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.

“I think we want to get something fairly soon so we have continuity of UI benefits in particular,” he said.

It remains unclear if Congress can strike an agreement by the end of next week, when the Senate is scheduled to adjourn for its August recess.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Utah) also warned Tuesday about the lapse of enhanced unemployment benefits.

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“I’d like to see us move on unemployment as soon as possible. It would be nice if we could get everything at the same time, but I really do not want to have people lose their supplemental unemployment benefit, whatever that number might be,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers have floated the possibility of moving a short-term extension of the federal addition to state unemployment benefits, although at a lower number than the $600-a-week boost provided by the CARES Act, the initial virus bill that was signed into law earlier this year.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.), however, on Monday dismissed that idea, telling reporters: “Forget it.”

Republican senators don’t want to undercut their negotiating position but privately acknowledge it’s in their interest to cut a deal with Democrats quickly.

“I do want to get something done. The challenges people are facing is now and it’s important that we do our efforts quickly,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to comment on the pressure on Republicans to clinch a deal in the next week or two.

The senator cited the expiring boost to unemployment benefits as a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.

“The [unemployment insurance] issue is one of the pieces of leverage that forces Congress to work more quickly,” the lawmaker said.

Republicans are well aware that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE’s chances of winning reelection, and their chances of keeping the majority, will depend largely on public perceptions of the strength of the economy and how well the president has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s job approval rating is hovering around 40 percent in recent polls and the approval rating of his performance in handling the pandemic was 32 percent in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Weighed down by Trump’s weak numbers, GOP incumbents are trailing or in dead-heat races in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience The Memo: Trump election loss roils right MORE (R-Tenn.) noted Tuesday that the start of the new school year is fast approaching and that it will likely take the Department of Education and states about a month to fully implement federal funding to make classrooms and school schedules safer.

“The president and Senate Republicans have recommended $105 billion for back to school and back to college,” he said. “In the South, school is beginning right away and the whole purpose of this funding is to make sure the schools can open safely with as many children physically present as possible. So the sooner the better.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday called on negotiators to focus on core issues related to responding to the pandemic and to jettison provisions that are not really relevant and are likely to spark political controversy and slow down the talks.

The GOP leader told reporters that he opposes “nongermane” amendments such as the $1.75 billion in funding for a new FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, which the administration asked to be included in a joint White House-Senate Republican relief bill.

“I am opposed to nongermane amendments, whether it’s funding for the FBI building or, for example, in the House bill, whether it’s a tax cut for high-income earners in blue states,” McConnell said.

“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-COVID-related measures are out, no matter what bill they were in at the start,” he added.

Democrats on Monday seized on the inclusion of money for refurbishing the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in the GOP opening proposal as an attempt by Trump to protect the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue from the possibility that a new luxury hotel might move into the spot currently occupied by the FBI.

The problem GOP lawmakers face is that Democrats will demand a high price for passing a bill that could be crucial to Trump’s chances of winning reelection and Senate GOP hopes of saving endangered incumbents.

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While Republicans want to cap the next relief bill at $1 trillion, Democrats are calling for $3.4 trillion in new stimulus, with $1 trillion set aside just for cash-strapped state and local governments. Conservatives in the Senate are adamantly against adding trillions more to the exploding deficit.

After receiving a briefing from Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn 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 Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE and 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 during a Senate GOP lunch meeting, Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Rush Limbaugh lauds Hawley: 'This guy is the real deal' MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters that the cost of the relief bill is likely to swell significantly. 

“This is not going to be the bill. The chief of staff was just talking about [how] they’re going to negotiate with Pelosi,” he said, predicting the final version of the legislation will bear little resemblance to the joint proposal put together last week by White House and Senate GOP negotiators.

On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseTrump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right Whoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: 'This is an attempted coup' MORE (R-Neb.) ripped the Trump administration in a statement: “We have two big government Democrats — Secretary Mnuchin on behalf of the Trump administration and Speaker Pelosi on behalf of binge-spending politicians everywhere —  playing gross games with your kids’ money.”

Another significant obstacle to a quick deal is McConnell’s demand that new legislation include a five-year liability shield to protect businesses, schools, colleges, churches and other organizations from coronavirus-related litigation.

He reiterated his position Tuesday.

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“There is no chance, zero chance America can get back to normal without … liability protection and no bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not include it,” he said.

“Today we had sort of a message from the Senate side that seems to me that Sen. McConnell really doesn’t want to get an agreement made,” Pelosi said, referencing the GOP leader’s insistence on a liability shield.

“Leader McConnell said that his entire liability provision would have to be — without negotiation — part of any bill that’s going to pass. That is no way to negotiate,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (N.Y.).