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McConnell, Pelosi hunt for funding deal as shutdown deadline looms

Staffers for the top four congressional leaders sat down on Thursday to discuss funding the government amid signs of progress toward a spending deal.

A senior Democratic aide confirmed to The Hill that staffers for House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate approves two energy regulators, completing panel On The Money: Biden announces key members of economic team | GOP open to Yellen as Treasury secretary, opposed to budget pick | GAO: Labor Department 'improperly presented' jobless data Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Collins urges voters to turn out in Georgia runoffs MORE (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' MORE (R-Calif.) met Thursday.

The meeting comes as Congress has until Dec. 11 to fund the government and avoid a holiday shutdown reminiscent of 2018, when it shuttered for 35 days.

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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, who visited the Capitol on Wednesday, didn't rule out a shutdown, feeding speculation about whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE would be willing to sign a mammoth funding deal on his way out of power. He previously railed against omnibus bills, vowing to "never sign another bill like this again."

But McConnell and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThis week: Congress races to wrap work for the year Incoming Congress looks more like America Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Ala.) indicated they believe the White House is supportive of an omnibus spending bill — which would include all 12 fiscal 2021 bills and fund the government through Sept. 30, 2021 — instead of a continuing resolution (CR) that would continue fiscal 2020 funding levels into early next year.

"It's our hope ... that we can come together on an omnibus and pass it," McConnell told reporters after Meadows joined Republicans for a closed-door lunch, adding that he believed that was also the "preference of the White House."

Shelby also met with Meadows this week, and spoke with Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyThis week: Congress races to wrap work for the year Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint Protect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package MORE (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

“We went over where we are as far as trying to put the omnibus together and we talked about some parameters between us and the House,” Shelby said about his talk with Meadows. “I thought our meeting was very positive."

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Lawmakers and the White House are discussing a $1.4 trillion bill that would fund the government until Oct. 1, 2021, which is the start of the 2022 fiscal year.

Shelby indicated that the border wall, a top priority for the president, came up during his conversation with Meadows but only in general terms.

"I mentioned what we had in the bill ... so in that regard not huge new initiatives," Shelby said.

Senate Republicans put $2 billion for the border wall in their bill and Shelby added on Wednesday that "I think that's what we're talking about right now."

McConnell has said he wants a deal on top-line numbers for all 12 funding bills, which would be included in an omnibus, by this week, though Shelby has indicated that he wants to return from the Thanksgiving recess with an agreement.

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Once lawmakers return on Nov. 30, they will have roughly 10 working days before the House is scheduled to leave until January.

"We've got time," Shelby warned. "But we've got to move."

The negotiations over how to fund the government are separate from stalled talks on a fifth coronavirus relief bill, though some Republicans have floated that they could be merged.

Leaders on both sides disclosed this week that there had been no private conversations between congressional Democrats and McConnell about a fifth coronavirus relief bill even as cases climb across the country and some cities and states are reimposing restrictions to try to curb the spread.

Two Democratic aides told The Hill that coronavirus relief was discussed during Thursday's meeting. Republicans, however, pushed back on claims that it was discussed, with a House GOP leadership aide saying "staff are doing the usual end-of-year assessment of expiring provisions that we do every year."

"For the first time, we're having some productive conversations in a while, because Leader McConnell has now said he will sit down and talk," Schumer told reporters in New York about coronavirus relief. 

—Updated at 4:54 p.m.