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Relief talks show GOP divisions

Splits among Republicans are complicating GOP efforts to get on the same page in talks on a coronavirus relief deal, underscoring intraparty divisions ahead of two runoff elections in Georgia next month that will determine the Senate majority.

Some GOP lawmakers on Wednesday expressed frustration that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinOn The Money: Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary | Biden says he's open to tighter income limits for stimulus checks | Administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary Biden administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill MORE has stepped in with a $916 billion offer to Democrats after it was decided that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses McConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Budowsky: A Biden-McConnell state of emergency summit MORE (R-Ky.) would take the lead in talks with Democrats.

Republican senators say that Mnuchin’s eleventh-hour proposal to include $600 stimulus checks in a stalled coronavirus relief deal — and offset the cost in part by significantly reducing supplemental federal unemployment benefits — has added a big new wrinkle to the talks.

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“It’s not helpful,” said a senior Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the administration.

Mnuchin’s proposal diverged from the consensus position that McConnell outlined at a press conference last week after discussing the GOP position with Mnuchin, 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 and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyCheney spokesperson on Gaetz: 'In Wyoming, the men don't wear make-up' Biden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop House GOP leader says he has 'concerns' over Cheney's impeachment vote MORE (R-Calif.). That proposal did not include stimulus checks.

“A lot of members don’t like it,” Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump, allies raise pressure on Senate GOP ahead of impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda MORE (S.D.) said of another round of stimulus checks, which is projected to cost $170 billion. “Depending on how much the checks are, you would have to drop something out” to keep the total cost of the package below $1 trillion.

“I think most of our members would rather have an extension of the plussed-up UI [unemployment insurance] benefit than having those checks because at least those are going to people who don’t have jobs and right now really need the help,” Thune said.

Yet some Republicans, most notably Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyTo 'lower the temperature' raise commitments to federalism Leahy, not Roberts, to preside over impeachment trial Beto O'Rourke: Ted Cruz 'guilty of sedition' in Capitol insurrection MORE (R-Mo.), a rising star in the party seen as having presidential aspirations, are vocal proponents of stimulus checks. President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE is also an advocate for checks.

It’s all an unhelpful development for McConnell, according to another Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on the leader’s strategy. This senator said the GOP leader’s top priority is to avoid a messy floor fight that would divide his conference shortly before two Senate runoff races in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5.

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Senate Republicans have to win at least one of the two runoffs to keep the Senate majority in 2021.

McConnell is trying to boil down the negotiations, which have dragged on for months, to a set of issues on which there is broad bipartisan agreement: providing more money for small-business loans, vaccine distribution and resources for health care providers.

On Tuesday, he suggested dropping the two most contentious issues from the talks: $160 billion in new federal funding for state and local governments and liability protection for businesses, schools, churches and other organizations.

Mnuchin’s proposal went in a dramatically different direction. On Tuesday afternoon, the Treasury secretary presented an offer to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOklahoma man who videotaped himself with his feet on desk in Pelosi's office during Capitol riot released on bond House formally sends impeachment to Senate, putting Trump on trial for Capitol riot With another caravan heading North, a closer look at our asylum law MORE (D-Calif.) that not only included significant spending for state and local governments but also “robust” liability provisions.

Thune on Wednesday said a new round of funding for state and local governments badly divides the GOP conference.

“Based on past members’ concerns and previous votes ... having state and local funding in there would be highly problematic,” he said.

“Having that in there would complicate the Republican vote total,” he added.  

An intraparty fight over state and local funding or a second blast of what Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Appeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (R-Pa.), a fiscal conservative, skeptically called “the money cannon” earlier this year would not be the best way to go into the runoff, the GOP lawmaker said.

“Mitch’s goal is to try to hold the center together until the Georgia runoff. He’s trying to live through this,” the senator said.

Mnuchin’s proposal also had the effect of expanding the number of items on the table instead of shrinking them by floating the idea of $600 stimulus checks.

Mnuchin has previously been a source of friction within GOP circles. Democrats have long seen Mnuchin as more likely to agree to another large relief deal than McConnell.  

The first lawmaker who spoke to The Hill said McConnell, not Mnuchin, should be spearheading the talks with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Justice watchdog to probe whether officials sought to interfere with election Capitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? MORE (D-N.Y.).

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Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators call for commission to investigate Capitol attack Wisconsin Democrats make ad buy calling on Johnson to resign Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress MORE (R-Wis.) said he would prefer to provide targeted federal assistance to the people who most need it instead of sending out another round of stimulus checks, which would be broadly distributed to all Americans up to a certain income level.

“I agree with the leader,” he said, referring to McConnell, predicting that a $500 billion or $600 billion package made up of funding for a new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans and other targeted assistance would pass Congress. He added that liability protection laws are better left to the states anyway.

“It’s not helpful to have multiple voices,” Johnson added.

McConnell on Wednesday blamed Democrats as the chief obstacle to getting a deal.

“I count no fewer than 10 separate times that top Democrats rejected or blocked various Republican efforts to jump-start this process,” he said on the Senate floor.

A GOP aide noted that Pelosi and Schumer quickly rejected McConnell’s proposal for a scaled-down relief package of consensus items and then also rejected Mnuchin’s expanded $916 billion proposal, including stimulus checks.

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But GOP lawmakers say competing strategies for handling the year-end negotiations creates confusion over what the Republican position is.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerModerates vow to 'be a force' under Biden The next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (Va.), a key Democratic centrist, said Republicans have been speaking “with multiple voices” for “months on end” in the fruitless effort to reach a deal on a new coronavirus relief package.

Some moderate Republicans saw Mnuchin’s proposal to Pelosi as helpful to their own effort to advance a bipartisan $908 billion deal, as both plans are about the same size and contain many of the same elements even though there are important differences.

But McConnell signaled last week that he’s not a fan of the bipartisan group’s package, which includes $160 billion in state and local funding and has what many Republicans view as weak language on liability protection.

Asked about it at a news conference, the GOP leader responded: “We just don’t have time to waste time.”