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Democratic leaders under pressure to agree to slimmed-down COVID-19 relief deal

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE (D-Calif.) are under growing pressure from fellow Democrats to back off their insistence that a year-end COVID-19 relief package include another large tranche of federal aid for cash-strapped state and local governments.

Schumer and Pelosi last week shot down a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Urgency mounts for new voting rights bill Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE (R-Ky.) to set aside the two most controversial items of the relief talks: aid for state and local governments and liability protection for businesses and other organizations.

On Tuesday, the two Democrats met with McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthySasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Democrats seize on GOP donor fallout Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report MORE (R-Calif.) to discuss attaching a relief package to the $1.4 trillion omnibus package funding general government operations. Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinTreasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' Treasury Department sanctions inner circle of Russian agent Derkach for election interference Sanders defends push to impeach Trump: Insurrection won't be tolerated MORE joined by phone.

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Schumer and Pelosi have eased up on their demands in recent days amid growing calls from fellow Democrats for a coronavirus relief deal before Congress leaves for the Christmas break.

Even Democrats who have blasted Republicans for not supporting a larger relief package have signaled a willingness to accept a smaller bill before Christmas.

“I think we’ve got to get what we can get now,” said Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (D-Ohio).

He said he thought the GOP’s opposition to a larger bill was “outrageous.”

“This administration has betrayed workers and consumers every step of the way and it’s clear they side with corporate interests over workers every single time,” he said.

But Brown added that Democrats can make another bid for state and local relief funding next year after President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Facebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP MORE is sworn into office.

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“I would hope the pressure on Republican senators would be such that McConnell would have to at least acknowledge” it, Brown added.

Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsSenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Security concerns mount ahead of Biden inauguration Trump impeachment collides with Biden's agenda MORE (D-Del.), one of Biden’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, on Tuesday called on congressional leaders to accept a bipartisan $748 billion COVID-19 relief proposal that does not include $160 billion in state and local aid that was removed in recent days to break a stalemate.

“We have to move forward on this $748 billion that we all agree on. We should not go home without enacting significant relief for the American people who are so much in need right now as we go into the holidays,” Coons said on CNN's "New Day."

A group of Democrats on Monday joined a group of moderate Republicans in announcing support for the $748 billion package without the $160 billion bloc of state and local funding: Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Manchin: Removing Hawley, Cruz with 14th Amendment 'should be a consideration' 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (D-W.Va.), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenBipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 How Congress dismissed women's empowerment MORE (D-N.H.), Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanBipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 Insurers lose multiyear lobbying fight over surprise medical bills MORE (D-N.H.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial Schumer says Democrats will probe extremist groups after Capitol attack MORE (D-Ill.) and Angus KingAngus KingSenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.

The package includes $300 in weekly federal supplemental unemployment assistance for a period of 16 weeks, $300 billion for the Small Business Administration to make a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, $13 billion in emergency food assistance and $25 billion in emergency rental assistance. 

It also extends student loan forbearance through April, provides $35 billion for a health care provider relief fund, $16 billion for virus testing and vaccine distribution, $82 billion in funding for K-12 schools and higher education, and $45 billion in emergency funding for airlines, airports, buses, Amtrak and public transit. 

It’s a far cry from the $2.2 trillion HEROES Act that Schumer and Pelosi said should be the “starting point” of the negotiations on Nov. 12. 

Durbin explained on the Senate floor Tuesday that state and local funding and liability protection provisions “were not included in the last consensus bill because we couldn’t reach a consensus on them.” Durbin, however, said he hoped that Senate and House leader still might find a way to put state and local relief in the bill.  

Shaheen said Tuesday that Congress should pass a relief deal before Christmas, even if it doesn’t include state and local funding. Shaheen said it’s crucial to get something done after months of stalemate, even though she supports providing another round of relief for states, cities and towns. 

“I support the state and local piece, I think that’s very important but there are other provisions in there to help state and local governments, to help with vaccine distribution, to help with schools, with nutrition. There are some other ways it helps,” she said. 

Not all Democrats agree with that approach, however. 

Six liberals led by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Biden to seek minimum wage in COVID-19 proposal MORE (I-Vt.) circulated a letter last week that dismissed a $908 billion proposal backed by moderates, which included $160 billion for state and local aid, for not going “anywhere near far enough” and for not including direct payments to families. 

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But Shaheen said she agrees that Democrats should get what they can now and come back next year to get additional help for states. 

“I think the deadline is before we leave for Christmas. We’ve got to send a message to the American public that we understand what they’re going through and we’re going to provide help,” she said. 

Schumer and Pelosi have softened their opposition to moving a relief bill without state and local relief funds in recent days.

Both Democratic leaders blasted the idea last week.

“Sen. McConnell has put the jobs of firefighters, ambulance workers, sanitation officers, police officers in jeopardy. Every governor and mayor across the country has been fighting to keep these people working and McConnell is pulling the rug out from under them,” Schumer told reporters on Dec. 8.

But on Tuesday, Schumer declined to rule out accepting a package without state and local funding.

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“On state and local, everyone knows my position. It has broad bipartisan support and I’m not going to get into negotiations in any way that will occur at 4 o’clock,” he said ahead of a meeting scheduled later in the day with Pelosi, McConnell and McCarthy to discuss the relief package.

Schumer declined to comment on what was discussed after the Tuesday afternoon meeting ended without a deal. 

“I’ll just say it was a good meeting, that’s all,” he said. 

Like Schumer, Pelosi also appeared to be softening her stance on state and local aid, even as she declared earlier this week: “I very much support state and local.”

When asked if the aid for cities, counties and states amounted to a “red line” in her talks with Republicans, Pelosi replied: “We are in negotiations.”

That’s a departure from previous weeks and months when she trumpeted how the House-passed $3.4 billion HEROES Act set aside nearly $1 trillion for America’s “heroes” — police officers, firefighters and other first responders — through funding for state and local governments.  

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Schumer and Pelosi argued last week that McConnell’s proposal was an attempt to sabotage the efforts of a bipartisan group of senators and House members to reach a deal that would include help for state and local governments.

The Democratic leaders had asked McConnell for months to sit down and negotiate and once the GOP leader agreed to do so Tuesday, Schumer and Pelosi declined to comment on what they might accept in a final agreement.

So far, Pelosi is keeping rank-and-file members in the dark on her talks with Mnuchin and McConnell. But some liberal and moderate House Democrats say they’re ready to pass the $748 billion package now and expect Pelosi to punt the state and local issue until 2021, when Democrats will have the White House and more leverage.

“What I expect is that we will be presented with the smaller COVID package without state and local and without liability shields, and this will pass easily,” one House Democratic lawmaker told The Hill on Tuesday. 

“Then we will take up the other bipolar bill, which is strongly positive at one end, strongly negative on the other,” the lawmaker added. It’s “state & local, which we Dems believe is urgently needed, and liability protections, which Mitch McConnell and other Republicans insist upon. The fate of this bill? Uncertain.”