December 16, 2020
By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Top U.S. congressional leaders began a second meeting Tuesday to try to end a months-long standoff on coronavirus relief and finalize a funding bill in time to avert a government shutdown at the weekend.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, hosted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, as well as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, at the 7:30 p.m. ET (0030 GMT) gathering, after both sides cited progress at their first session earlier in the day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was expected to join again by telephone.
“Now we are continuing to work. I think there is progress,” McCarthy said as he left the earlier gathering late Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ll just say it was a good meeting, that’s all,” Schumer told reporters.
The first session between the leaders – a rare get-together of the four for face-to-face negotiations – lasted a little less than an hour.
After it, McConnell told reporters: “We’re going to get an agreement as soon as we can agree.”
But he added: “We are still talking to each other and there is agreement that we are not going to leave here without the omni (spending bill) and the COVID (aid).”
McConnell vowed to reporters earlier that lawmakers would not leave town this year until they have agreed on a fresh package of coronavirus relief, which he said he hoped could be attached to the government funding measure. The latter must pass by midnight Friday or government operations would start shutting down.
McConnell also reiterated his view earlier on Tuesday that the best way to get a deal on a fresh COVID-19 aid plan was to drop the most contentious items – liability protections for business, preferred by Republicans, and aid to state and local governments, sought by Democrats.
Pelosi spoke to Mnuchin by phone for over an hour earlier on Tuesday. They have been frequent negotiating partners in efforts in recent months to reach a consensus on a new package of coronavirus relief.
Back in the spring, Congress approved $3 trillion in coronavirus aid, but lawmakers have argued ever since then about whether more is needed. Meanwhile, the pandemic has worsened and over 300,000 Americans have died and millions are unemployed from its economic fallout.
Leading lawmakers this week have been hammering out the government spending measure, a $1.4 trillion bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. A source said on Tuesday that task was basically done, but lawmakers from both parties still sought to strike a consensus on coronavirus relief in hopes of attaching it to the spending bill.
‘HAVE TO COME TO AGREEMENT’
Pelosi told reporters about an hour before the first meeting that “We’ll have to come to agreement. And we hope that that will happen in a way that keeps government open.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate this week unveiled a COVID-19 aid package of $908 billion in two parts.
One was a $748 billion proposal, including aid to small businesses, the unemployed and vaccine distribution. The other includes the two main sticking points on Capitol Hill that McConnell cited: the liability protections for businesses and other organizations, and $160 billion for state and local governments.
Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act quickly on coronavirus aid before he takes office on Jan. 20. Even if it does, his new administration likely will seek another round of aid next year.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Peter Cooney)
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