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Senate leaders quash talk of rank-and-file COVID-19 deal

Senators say the chances of a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats coming together on a compromise coronavirus relief package is slim to none because of pressure from the leadership of their respective parties.

Centrist senators who would ordinarily be expected to be having sideline negotiations say there’s been little activity despite the apparent collapse of talks between the White House and Democratic leaders.

They say that’s because leadership on both sides of the aisle have frozen the possibility of rump-group talks less than two months before elections in which future control of the Senate will be decided.

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Republican senators say that Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers MORE (D-N.Y.) has told his Democratic colleagues not to undercut their leadership by working on side deals with the GOP.

“The bigger problem here is Sen. Schumer has decided there shouldn’t be negotiations. Right now, we’re not even in the position of even talking to rank-and-file Democrats because they’ve been told not to negotiate,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Rubio: Trump impeachment trial is 'stupid' The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all MORE (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, which has jurisdiction over the popular Paycheck Protection Program.

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE (R-S.D.) said the Senate Democratic leadership has “crushed” any attempts to negotiate separately with rank-and-file Democrats on scaled-down relief measures.

“I hope we could sit down together. I think there are people who would do that, but I think their leadership right now has just kind of crushed that in hopes that they’ll have the majority after the election,” he said.

A $500 billion to $700 billion proposal, which included $105 billion to help colleges and schools resume classes and $300 per week federal unemployment assistance, failed to get a single Democratic vote last week.   

One centrist Democratic senator interested in passing coronavirus relief legislation in the next several weeks said in contrast to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop More hands needed on the nuclear football Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus MORE (D-Calif.), Schumer hasn’t given colleagues a green light to put together their own proposal.

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The lawmaker said Pelosi gave House centrists tacit permission to unveil their own $1.5 trillion relief proposal Wednesday, even though she said doesn’t support it.

“It’s past time to do something, but the question is whether we can get folks talking to do it,” said the senator. “You can’t get out in front of this stuff when you have the majority leader and minority leader saying different things on the floor.”

“Schumer and McConnell never like their people talking,” the senator added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.). “As I understand it, Pelosi gave the green light for her people to have the discussion.”

One prominent centrist who is usually in the middle of efforts to form bipartisan gangs is Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (R-Maine). But she is a top Democratic political target in the midst of the toughest reelection race of her Senate career.

Democrats don’t have much interest in handing her a big policy victory a few weeks before Election Day, and Collins has kept a lower profile than in past years.

A bipartisan group of about 50 House Democrats and Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus proposed a $1.5 trillion package Wednesday that would provide another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, $500 billion in aid to state and local governments and a $600 per week federal enhancement of state unemployment benefits.

Pelosi during a conference call with colleagues Tuesday said she’s sticking to her position, something she later confirmed in an interview with CNBC.

“A skinny deal is a Republican bill. That’s not a deal at all,” she told CNBC host Jim Cramer.

She argued that Congress should “spend the appropriate amount of money to meet the needs of the American people” at a time “the Fed is spending trillions of dollars shoring up our economy in other ways with monetary policy.”

Schumer, asked about the Problem Solvers’ plan, said Tuesday that he’s sticking with his and Pelosi’s call for a $2.2 trillion package.

“The Speaker and I stand by our position. We’re willing to meet the president in the middle,” he said, referring to the $1.1 trillion GOP proposal the White House endorsed in July and the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that House Democrats passed in May.

Senate Democrats say McConnell and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE are the biggest obstacles to reaching a coronavirus deal.

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“I think it comes down to one word: McConnell,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “He has created an environment and maybe specific imperatives that cause his members to avoid any bipartisan engagement.”

He noted that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinBiden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' MORE has floated the idea of negotiating a $1.5 trillion package but that McConnell has moved in the opposite direction by putting a $500 billion proposal on the floor last week.

“The leadership failure, purposeful or inadvertent, discourages my Republican colleagues to engage,” Blumenthal said.

McConnell spent the final weeks of August holding regular conference calls with Republican colleagues to unify them behind a $500 billion to $700 billion coronavirus relief bill, which garnered 52 Republican votes on the floor last week.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (R-S.C.) last week raised hopes of a Senate gang emerging to find common ground between the parties in order to pass a coronavirus relief bill before the election, but then quickly dismissed the possibility.

Graham on Tuesday said the leadership in both parties haven’t expressed any interest in letting rank-and-file colleagues step in to negotiate a deal.

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“If the leadership’s not interested ... they’re the primary players here,” he said.

Several senators said Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Durbin: Senate should consider changes to filibuster MORE (D-W.Va.) has floated the idea of introducing a proposal along the lines of the Problem Solvers’ plan, but the discussion has been limited to a small group.

Manchin on Tuesday said he’s studying the Problem Solvers’ plan but doesn’t plan to release his own proposal anytime soon.

“I don’t have any intentions of doing that right now. None at all,” he said.

“I think they’re still negotiating. If they’re still negotiating, why would we jump in and mess them up?” he said of talks between the White House and Democratic leaders.