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Coronavirus relief at a standstill with no leadership-level talks

Coronavirus relief at a standstill with no leadership-level talks
© Bonnie Cash

Negotiations between congressional leaders on a fifth coronavirus relief bill are at a standstill, further dimming the prospects for an end-of-year deal even as cases climb across the country.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority 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 (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor Wednesday traded blame for the lack of progress.

“I heard the Republican leader this morning give the same long, tired speech that pretends as if Democrats haven’t been trying to negotiate with our colleagues, that we haven’t been trying over and over again to get our Republican colleagues to talk with us,” Schumer said.

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Schumer and House 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.) sent McConnell a letter this week urging him to restart negotiations on a fifth coronavirus package. McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference that he was not having any behind-the-scenes talks with Democratic leadership about coronavirus relief, though he and Pelosi spoke last week on funding the government. 

“We write to request that you join us at the negotiating table this week so that we can work towards a bipartisan, bicameral COVID-19 relief agreement to crush the virus and save American lives,” Schumer and Pelosi wrote in the letter.

McConnell is expected to take the lead in any negotiations with congressional Democrats after months of talks between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBiden'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 Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE failed to produce a result. 

But the two sides are still far apart on everything, from the price tag to specific policy proposals.

Senate Republicans are digging in on the $500 billion plan they’ve pitched, and that Democrats have blocked, as recently as October. Democratic leadership, meanwhile, is sticking with $2.2 trillion, the price tag of the second bill passed by House Democrats.

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McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, said Republicans have had an “entirely consistent” position. 

“There’s no reason why doing right by struggling families should wait until we resolve every difference on every issue,” McConnell said.

In addition to differences over the price tag, the two sides are still at odds over more help for state and local governments, legal protections against coronavirus related lawsuits and unemployment insurance.  

The lack of progress comes as the two sides are talking about funding the government.

Republicans have floated for months the idea that merging the two issues would be the easiest way to pass more coronavirus legislation. Congress has until Dec. 11 to fund the government and avoid a holiday shutdown. 

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Trump, Pelosi barrel toward final border wall showdown On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds MORE (R-Ala.) cast doubt on coronavirus relief getting airdropped in. 

"I think right now that the Democrats would have to come a long way back to reality with us to get a bill," Shelby said.