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Biden, congressional leaders call for COVID relief, but still seem far apart on a deal

COVID surge pushes hospitals to the brink
Coronavirus surge pushes hospitals to the brink 04:25

With coronavirus cases continuing to spike and the expiration date for key relief programs looming, President-elect Biden and congressional leaders all believe the nation needs more legislation to address the economic fallout of the pandemic before the end of the year. But that belief appears to be about the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree on; they're still far apart on how much it should cost.

Whether a bill can be passed before the end of the year is currently complicated by the question of who will be holding the majority in the Senate when the new Congress begins next year. However, this will be settled by the outcome of the two Senate runoff races in Georgia in early January. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be leading a smaller majority in January because several freshman Democrats lost their reelection races this year.

Mr. Biden met with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last week to discuss his legislative priorities, and the the three "agreed that Congress needed to pass a bipartisan emergency aid package in the lame-duck session," a joint readout of the meeting said. They want the next legislation to include "resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments trying to keep frontline workers on the payroll, expanded unemployment insurance, and affordable health care for millions of families."

The House passed legislation in October that would spend over $2 trillion on these priorities, but it's been dismissed by Senate Republicans as far too expensive and loaded down with provisions irrelevant to the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced his own bill at a fraction of the House bill's cost — about $500 billion — but it has been blocked twice by Democrats who don't think it goes far enough.

Pelosi spent weeks negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ahead of the election on a relief proposal, but the two were unable to reach an agreement, even after Mnuchin made a nearly $2 trillion offer. Pelosi said that the main sticking points were how much funding could be allocated to state and local governments and the inclusion of liability protections, a priority for McConnell. Although President Trump has called on Congress to pass coronavirus relief, he has also expressed opposition to including funding for state and local jurisdictions, accusing Democrats of wanting to bail out blue states.

Mnuchin met with congressional Republicans last week, but did not speak with congressional Democrats.

McConnell and Pelosi have both appeared uninterested in considering legislation proposed by the other. McConnell told reporters last week that he was focused on passing his previously proposed bill, which would include funding for schools, the Paycheck Protection Program and liability reform.

"I am open to a targeted bill roughly of the amount that we recommended, a half trillion dollars, which is not nothing, narrowly targeted at schools, at healthcare providers, at PPP, and of course liability reform to keep America from being engaged in an epidemic of lawsuits on the heels of the pandemic, very open to that but I have seen no evidence yet as several of my colleagues have suggested that they are open to it," McConnell said.

Pelosi told reporters on Friday that she and McConnell are not currently negotiating over coronavirus-related aid, and she called McConnell an "obstacle" to efforts to reach a deal.

"There's just one big obstacle in the way in the Senate, Mitch McConnell ... and the other obstacle is President Trump," Pelosi said. 

Congress is out for the Thanksgiving recess until next week.

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