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COVID-19 Relief Deal Stalled As Congress Nears Shutdown Deadline

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday he was optimistic about reaching a coronavirus relief deal, but he and other top congressional leaders are still negotiating key details.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday he was optimistic about reaching a coronavirus relief deal, but he and other top congressional leaders are still negotiating key details.

Hours before the federal government runs out of money, bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate were still negotiating on a coronavirus relief package to attach to the annual spending bill.

Lawmakers from both parties insist they will not leave Washington for the holidays until they get a deal, and they say there won't be a shutdown, even as federal agencies are set to run out of money at midnight on Friday.

But some outside the small group of the top leaders finalizing the roughly $900 billion package — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — are frustrated the details of the emerging deal haven't been shared more widely.

"I think this is reaching a point — it's beginning to reach a point of absurdity ... It's time for leadership to put on the table what they've got. It's time for them to brief members what they got," Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley told reporters.

Hawley has been pushing for another round of direct payments in the legislation, along with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. The bill is expected to include this type of assistance, but it's unclear how large the checks will be. Hawley says he's not ready to back a stopgap bill to avoid a shutdown unless he gets more information.

Separately, Democrats are objecting to efforts by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to add a provision to the bill that they say will make it more difficult for the incoming Biden administration to access emergency powers for additional lending authority.

Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn admitted to reporters it was a difficult issue to resolve. He said what Toomey is aiming to do is to ensure the lending authority isn't used by the Federal Reserve for "unauthorized purposes."

"It could potentially be used as a backdoor to do state local aid, which I think is the idea, without Congress's approval, and particularly when we negotiated these other items," Cornyn said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer blamed the top Senate Republican for the hold up on the COVID-19 package. "I think McConnell is the principle culprit. But I don't think the rest of us are without blame," he said.

Hoyer noted that Democrats set aside their demands for more money for state and local governments. "But right now what I think the Republicans are doing are trying to get an advantage against Biden in the next administration. That's what this Toomey amendment is about."

Biden's camp is also pushing back at including the provision.

"While we are encouraged by the bipartisan effort underway to provide critical relief to millions of Americans, the package should not include unnecessary provisions that would hamper the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve's ability to fight economic crises," Brian Deese, Biden's top economic adviser, said in a written statement.

The main elements of the bipartisan legislation include more money for the Paycheck Protection Program to help struggling small businesses, help for unemployed Americans and resources for vaccine distribution. Lawmakers from both parties also largely agreed on a annual spending bill that would fund federal departments through September 2021.

With no clarity on the next steps, House Democratic leaders informed members they would take a recess from the House floor and decide later whether they would move to pass another temporary measure that would keep agencies funded for a few days as the talks continued.

Pressed whether it was possible to get a final deal on Friday, North Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune said "that would be a triumph of hope over experience." He told reporters he thought the "best case scenario" was getting something in place for a Sunday vote, but admitted the vote could come later than that.

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