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Congress closes in on COVID-19 relief, funding deal

Congress closes in on COVID-19 relief, funding deal
© Greg Nash

Congressional leaders said Tuesday night they are making progress on a sweeping deal to fund the government and provide coronavirus relief but hadn't yet clinched an agreement.

The top four congressional leaders met twice Tuesday as they race the clock to try to fund the government by Friday and break a months-long stalemate to provide more coronavirus aid.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyCheney: McCarthy should 'absolutely' testify before Jan. 6 commission Gohmert says Jan. 6 mob attack on Capitol not an 'armed insurrection' Axios reporter Kadia Goba rejoining BuzzFeed News to cover GOP MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters that they were "close" to a deal, but didn't say if he thought it could be reached Tuesday.

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"I think it's going really well," McCarthy said as he left Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Lawmakers reach agreement on bipartisan Jan. 6 commission The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Masks off: CDC greenlights return to normal for vaccinated Americans MORE's (R-Ky.) office.

McConnell told reporters as he was leaving the Capitol for the night that he was "optimistic" they would reach an agreement "soon." He declined to say if that would be on Tuesday.

"We're making significant progress and I’m optimistic that we're gonna be able to complete an understanding sometime soon," McConnell told reporters.

"Everybody wants to get a final agreement as soon as possible. We all believe the country needs it. And I think we're getting closer and closer," he added.

Congressional leaders aren't expected to meet again for a third time on Tuesday with staff instead exchanging legislative proposals.

The two Republican leaders met with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGohmert says Jan. 6 mob attack on Capitol not an 'armed insurrection' Meghan McCain: Greene 'behaving like an animal' GOP Rep. Turner to lead House push to address military sexual assault MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority 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 (D-N.Y.) initially on Tuesday afternoon, before briefly breaking and reconvening at 7:30 p.m.

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Asked as he was leaving the building for the night if agreed with the GOP assertion that they were close, Schumer replied that they were "closer."

"We're exchanging paper and ideas back and forth, making progress and hopefully we can come to an agreement soon," Schumer said. "I think there is a genuine desire to come to an agreement by all four parties."

The inability for the top four congressional leaders, plus 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, to clinch a deal on Tuesday comes after staffers were already indicating that a mammoth government funding deal was likely slipping to Wednesday.

Leadership is hoping to attach some coronavirus relief to an omnibus funding bill, which would keep the government open until Oct. 1.

Congress is going down to the wire on the government funding negotiations. Congress has until the end of Friday to pass a bill to fund the government or have a shutdown going into the holidays.

Lawmakers are hoping to file text of a mammoth funding deal on Wednesday, after initially aiming to release it on Tuesday.

But the House is unlikely to vote on the package until at least Thursday.

That means Senate leadership is going to require cooperation from every senator to speed up its votes in order to meet the Friday night deadline. If they don't, they'll need to pass a third stopgap bill to buy themselves more time, otherwise the government will shut down.

Appropriators had hoped to clinch an agreement over the weekend on government funding but instead that's dragged out amid last-minute fights over including a deal on surprise medical billing and wage requirements on public works deals.

Members of GOP leadership indicated on Tuesday that they were still weighing whether or not to include the surprise medical billing agreement, which was announced by four congressional committees late last week.

Wrapped up in the government funding negotiations is an effort to pass long-stalled coronavirus relief as part of the mammoth government funding bill.

McConnell vowed earlier Tuesday that the Senate would not leave town for the year until it passes more aid. Despite climbing cases and public health warnings of a brutal winter Congress hasn't passed coronavirus aid since April. 

"We’re not leaving here without a COVID package. It’s not going to happen,” McConnell told reporters during a press conference, vowing to remain in Washington “however long it takes.”

Republicans have pushed for months for Congress to pass a roughly $500 billion aid bill. Democratic leadership, meanwhile, has lined up behind a $908 billion proposal from a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers.

The bipartisan package was split into two different bills. One $748 billion piece includes another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) assistance for small businesses, an unemployment benefit and more money for schools, vaccine distribution and other widely agreed upon items.

The second, $160 billion piece ties together the two most controversial elements of the coronavirus negotiations: more money for state and local governments and protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Leadership is also facing bipartisan pressure to include a second round of stimulus checks in any year-end deal. 

Congressional leadership, and rank-and-file members, have struggled for months to reach an agreement on how to address a push — long viewed by McConnell as a "red line" — to include legal protections against coronavirus lawsuits. 

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But McConnell last week called on leadership to drop liability and the push for more state and local money and include a pared back agreement in a government funding deal.

Democratic leadership is under growing pressure from rank-and-file members to accept such an agreement, with lawmakers arguing that Congress needs to reach a deal now with cases climbing, benefits set to expire and the holidays coming.

Pelosi and Schumer haven't said if they are willing to stop their demand for more state and local funding, but haven't publicly drawn a red line around the issue this week.

"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," Schumer said earlier Tuesday when asked if Democrats were willing to set the issue aside. 

Schumer declined to say as he left the building if Democrats had dropped their demand for state and local governments.

"I'm not getting into specific details," Schumer said. "We're working, working, working. Papers going back and forth."