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Pressure builds for a breakthrough in COVID-19 relief talks

Two senators are making a last-ditch effort to craft a compromise on one of the biggest issues standing in the way of a COVID-19 relief deal.

Sens. 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.) and Angus KingAngus KingModerates vow to 'be a force' under Biden Biden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The next pandemic may be cyber — How Biden administration can stop it MORE (I-Maine) are holding conversations on coronavirus liability protections for businesses and other organizations in an attempt to find common ground where other senators have failed. Even if they reach a deal, 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.) will have to be convinced that it should go to the floor for a vote.

Graham and King continued to negotiate on Thursday and told colleagues they are close to coming up with a proposal.

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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 (R-S.D.) on Thursday raised doubts that Graham and King will be able to reach an agreement that’s broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans and Democrats.

“My sense is that they’re not going to get there on the liability language,” Thune said, suggesting any compromise is unlikely to be palatable to Democrats like Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinJustice watchdog to probe whether officials sought to interfere with election Moderates vow to 'be a force' under Biden Skepticism reigns as Biden, McConnell begin new era MORE (Ill.) and Republicans like Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Manchin vows that he won't vote to kill filibuster 'under any condition' Leahy, not Roberts, to preside over impeachment trial MORE (Texas).

“I just think you’ve got on their side Durbin, who basically represents the trial lawyers in this conversation, and Sen. McConnell and Sen. Cornyn, who on our side have worked on this for a long time,” he said.

Cornyn also expressed doubt Thursday about Graham and King finding a solution on liability reform that has eluded negotiators for months.

He said a proposal to pause coronavirus lawsuits to give states time to pass their own liability protection legislation or for Congress to come up with a standard for litigation “sounds like kicking the can down the road.”

Thune said the best chance for getting a COVID-19 deal passed is to remove the liability protection language and new federal funding for state and local governments — the two most contentious issues — and pass a smaller bill made up of items with broad bipartisan support, such as a second round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) small business loans.

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“You could probably get 70, 80 votes for that in the Senate,” he said.

McConnell earlier in the week called for removing the two divisive provisions and passing a slimmed down version.

“Even though they spent a lot of time trying to come up with creative, innovative solutions to it, they’re just not going to be able to thread the needle,” Thune said of so-far fruitless efforts to reach a compromise on liability protection.

To vote on legislation next week, the last full week before Christmas, leaders would need legislative language by the weekend, Thune said on Thursday.

Hours earlier, Senate Democratic 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 (N.Y.) again dismissed the idea of dropping both liability protections and new state and local funding.

He instead tied state and local relief to a new round of PPP funding.

“There is strong bipartisan support for state and local aid. There is not the same broad bipartisan support for sweeping corporate immunity,” he said. “The two policies are not remotely equivalent.”

“If you want PPP so small businesses don’t lay off people, why wouldn’t you want state and local aid so governments don’t lay off people?” he asked.

Members of the bicameral, bipartisan group that essentially reinvigorated negotiations last week with a $908 billion proposal said they are very close to reaching a deal on a formula for distributing $160 billion in new relief to cash-strapped state and local governments. But without buy-in from GOP leadership, the package won’t reach the floor for a vote.

The struggle for a breakthrough after months of sporadic negotiations comes as the Labor Department said Thursday that the number of new unemployment claims increased last week to 853,000, as coronavirus cases have been surging nationwide.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.) told lawmakers Thursday that no further votes are expected before Tuesday evening since there isn’t a deal yet for attaching a relief package to a year-end government funding bill.

“I am hopeful that over the next 72, 96 hours, that there will be a lot of work being done,” he said.

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Hoyer added that the 116th Congress won’t be adjourned until a coronavirus relief and government funding package are passed. The 117th Congress is slated to convene in early January.

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.) warned the bipartisan group with the $908 billion proposal that a liability protection provision along the lines of McConnell’s preference would be problematic for Democrats.

“What Mr. McConnell is putting forth in terms of liability is such an assault on America’s workers that I hope that the group goes nowhere near what he is presenting,” she said at a news conference.

A separate proposal that McConnell circulated earlier this month included limits for coronavirus-related personal injury claims against businesses, coronavirus-related medical malpractice claims, and labor and employment claims against businesses helping to fight the pandemic.

Pelosi said she’d like Congress to pass a relief package by Dec. 26, when certain unemployment aid expires, and hopefully by Dec. 18, the new deadline for government funding under a House-passed measure the Senate has yet to take up. But she also said the House can’t vote until a relief bill is ready and it has enough votes to pass.

“We’ve been here after Christmas, you know,” she said.

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Even if Congress extends employment insurance programs before Dec. 26, some policy experts think there could be a period of time when people see their benefits lapse because it will take time for states to update their systems to account for the changes.

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 struck an optimistic tone about relief package negotiations this week, saying he had conversations with senators on both sides of the aisle Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

“I think we're making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin told reporters Thursday morning before a congressional hearing. “I want to thank people on both sides who made a huge effort to try to compromise.”

Mnuchin said there are a lot of similarities between the White House’s recent $916 billion offer and the bipartisan $908 billion proposal, and that “whatever we can agree on should be in the deal.”