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Battle lines form over coronavirus fight in lame duck

Battle lines form over coronavirus fight in lame duck
© Bonnie Cash

A fight is looming over the prospect of passing a coronavirus relief deal in an upcoming lame-duck session, as both sides claim leverage in the battle. 

Congressional leaders and the White House each say they are interested in getting a fifth deal before the end of the year, as coronavirus cases climb across the country and public health officials warn of a brutal winter.

But deep differences remain.  

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Top Republicans are digging in on a smaller coronavirus relief deal, signaling that they believe Democrats should make concessions ahead of a looming lame-duck fight. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.), speaking at a press conference in Kentucky, said Friday's economic data backed the Senate GOP push for a smaller deal.  

McConnell called the unemployment rate falling to 6.9 percent "stunning" and said the third quarter gross domestic product number "indicates that our economy is really moving to get back on its feet."

"That I think clearly ought to affect what size of any rescue package we additionally do. I do think we need another one but I think it reinforces the argument that I've been making ... that something smaller rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue is more appropriate, with it highly targeted toward things that are directly related to the coronavirus," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.  

Senate Republicans have rallied around a roughly $500 billion package that would include more money for schools and testing, another round of Paycheck Protection Program aid and liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits. 

With Republicans in a strong position to hold on to the Senate majority — though Democrats have an uphill path to a 50-50 split — and Democrats losing House seats, GOP senators are signaling that they believe they have leverage.

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Asked if Pelosi has to give some ground, Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMcConnell wants deal this week on fiscal 2021 spending figures Graham becomes center of Georgia storm Republicans start turning the page on Trump era MORE (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, replied, "Sure she does." 

"The liberal agenda was rejected by voters. There was no mandate in this election. They would like the government to work ... No blue wave, no mandate," Blunt said.  

Blunt sidestepped saying whether Republicans would go up from the $500 billion. But he noted that it would be "incredibly helpful" for lawmakers and the White House to work out a deal before the end of the year, even while reiterating his skepticism that it would come to pass. 

"It would be to everybody's advantage if it was in the lame duck, but we'll see what everybody's attitude is," he said. 

When a reporter noted Blunt had been skeptical of it coming together before the end of the year, Blunt added: "I would love for this lame duck to defy all previous lame ducks but that's still my view." 

But Democrats are sticking by their pledge to "go big." House Democrats initially passed a $3.4 trillion coronavirus relief deal in May and then a second smaller $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief deal. The Senate has not taken up either.

"It doesn't appeal to me at all, because they still have not agreed to crush the virus. ... So, no, that isn't anything that we should even be looking at," Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters on Friday, asked about Republicans saying they are interested in a smaller bill. 

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBiden's Treasury pick will have lengthy to-do list on taxes On The Money: Initial jobless claims rise for 2nd week | Dow dips below 30K | Mnuchin draws fire for COVID-19 relief move | Manhattan DA appeals dismissal of Manafort charges Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE have been leading the negotiations for months but struggled to reach an agreement. Democrats believed they had leverage in the talks with political prognosticators viewing a Democratic trifecta as likely in 2021, and were able to move the administration to a range of $1.9 trillion or higher for a coronavirus deal. 

White House economic adviser Larry KudlowLarry KudlowMORE told reporters on Friday that the administration had already started to talk about McConnell on a stimulus package. 

"We would like to negotiate a package. It would still be a targeted package to specific areas. We're not interested in, you know, $2 or $3 trillion," Kudlow told reporters. 

Pressed if that meant the administration was moving away from supporting something at $1.9 trillion or higher, Kudlow replied: "We haven't really even talked about numbers yet." 

Asked if he was saying talks with Pelosi are over, he demurred.  

"I would just say right now we're communicating with Sen. McConnell," Kudlow said. 

Mike Lillis contributed.