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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 GrahamGOP governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Trump critics push new direction for GOP Graham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' MORE (R-S.C.) and Angus KingAngus KingDC statehood bill picks up Senate holdout Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill 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 McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' 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 ThuneGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Senate GOP dismayed by vote to boot Cheney Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles 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 DurbinSweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden's internal polling touts public support for immigration reform MORE (Ill.) and Republicans like Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block CNN asks Carol Baskin to comment on loose Texas tiger 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 SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill 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 HoyerWhat's a party caucus chair worth? House fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP 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 PelosiOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Hillicon Valley: Colonial pipeline is back online, but concerns remain | Uber, Lyft struggle with driver supply | Apple cuts controversial hire Ocasio-Cortez on Taylor Greene: 'These are the kinds of people that I threw out of bars all the time' 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 MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says 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.”