Window quickly closing for big coronavirus deal

Congress is quickly running out of time to cut a year-end deal on a big coronavirus relief package, with only a matter of days left before the next funding deadline.

Lawmakers have been holding talks for weeks but are struggling to close the gap on the biggest issues — state and local aid and legal protections for businesses from coronavirus lawsuits — even as pressure grows for more resources to prevent a sustained spike in COVID-19 cases and cities reimpose restrictions.

There’s now growing skepticism about the prospects for a sweeping agreement. With the clock ticking, lawmakers are warning there are too many moving parts and too many competing factions.

“I think it absolutely might not be possible,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, while acknowledging that not getting any coronavirus relief would be a “huge failure.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been involved in bipartisan negotiations, added that “everybody is staring each other down right now, but we have a deadline coming up.”

“People aren’t going to get 100 percent of what they want, so we ought to agree on what we can agree on and set the rest aside,” he added.

Congress has been battling for months over a coronavirus package. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have said they want a deal, they’ve yet to reach a breakthrough. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans and the White House have at times sent mixed signals about what they would accept.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), adding that he didn’t want to be a cynic, said, “We’re stuck in the same place we were four months ago.”

“[McConnell] ought to just turn to the members of the Senate and say, ‘Look, we can stay here forever and not reach an agreement. It’s time to vote. Have at it, dog. If you want to vote against it, vote against,’” Kennedy said. “We’re right where we were when we started three or four months ago. … The Senate only works when everybody’s not crazy at the same time.”

Frustrated by that lack of movement, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers has been trying to flesh out a $908 billion framework it introduced last week. But it is running into hurdles of its own on both policy and politics.

“I think that the bipartisan group has made real progress in putting together a robust framework that addresses a very wide range of issues. We have an eight-month impasse around liability issues, and it’s proving to be extremely difficult to close it,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the bicameral group.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), another member, has rejected a push to drop state and local aid and liability protections — the first a top priority for Democrats, the second a key provision for McConnell.

“We’re still working on it. Nothing is coming out,” Manchin said.

But even as the group digs in, GOP senators have pointed to Senate leadership, not the bipartisan group, as the place any agreement is going to have to be worked out.

“If this group thinks they’re actually going to negotiate a final bill, they’ve spent a lot of time on something that won’t result in a final bill,” Blunt said, adding that if McConnell and Pelosi “can’t work this out between them, it really doesn’t matter what eight members of the Senate or 38 members of the Senate do.”

The bipartisan group is also running out of time to get a deal and win over skeptics on coronavirus relief, which leadership has said it plans to fold into a mammoth government funding package.

Congress has until Friday to pass the government funding bill, and top appropriators say they are closing in on getting an agreement.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) didn’t rule out that a deal could be reached over this weekend.

“I think it’s going to work out, but it hasn’t yet,” Shelby said.

Leadership and appropriators are looking at inserting smaller coronavirus provisions into the omnibus. What that could include still needs to be ironed out, but there is broad agreement on areas such as more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding and more money for schools, testing and vaccine distribution.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) declined to discuss the bipartisan negotiations but didn’t outright oppose adding smaller coronavirus proposals into an omnibus if they couldn’t reach a larger agreement.

“I’m open to it, but I want to carefully screen it,” Durbin said.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, added there are “a whole series of things that there’s broad agreement on, and my view is we ought to move those, add them onto the appropriations bill.”

But going small on an agreement is likely to frustrate lawmakers on both sides who warn that the need for a comprehensive package that tackles the thorniest issues is only going to grow during what public health experts have predicted will be a brutal winter for COVID-19 cases.

“This is hard to put together, and that’s reflected in how long this has taken us to get here. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean these issues are going to go away,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), adding that her home state of Alaska “is really, really hurting right now.”

“For some of my colleagues in different states that are situated differently, I just ask them, ‘Don’t just think about your state,'” she added.

Adding another wrinkle to Friday’s deadline is the fact that Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are vowing to force a vote next week on their plan for a round round of stimulus checks.

And in a familiar curveball for Congress, lawmakers acknowledge that both coronavirus relief and a mammoth funding deal could unravel completely, potentially keeping lawmakers in the Capitol heading into Christmas.

“That’s to be determined. I’m not sure. … Unfortunately, we have politics and the pandemic, so it doesn’t look too good. We have a history here now of going to the eleventh hour and 59th minute on all of this. And that’s very unfortunate. That’s where we are,” said retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) when asked if there was an indication from leadership if Congress would be out of Washington by Christmas.

Pelosi brushed off Friday as a hard deadline in remarks to reporters that quickly sent off alarm bells across Washington.

“What’s more important is that we get the job done for the American people before the holidays,” she said. “But we’ve been here after Christmas, you know.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Coons coronavirus relief COVID-19 deal Dick Durbin Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Kennedy John Thune Josh Hawley Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic Pat Roberts Richard Shelby Roy Blunt

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