Negotiators Make Progress on Long-delayed COVID-19 Aid Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A bipartisan quartet of congressional leaders is pushing hard and in tandem for a long-delayed COVID-19 relief package, hoping to seal an agreement as early as Wednesday that would extend aid to individuals and businesses and help ship coronavirus vaccines to millions.

“We'll be back early and we'll be on schedule to get the job done," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as she left the Capitol just before midnight Tuesday.

Negotiations on COVID-19 relief intensified on Tuesday after months of futility. The top Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress met twice in hopes of finally cementing a leadership agreement that would revive subsidies for businesses hit hard by the pandemic, help distribute new coronavirus vaccines, fund schools and renew soon-to-expire jobless benefits.

Republicans labored to keep the price tag for the long-delayed rescue package in check, seeking to prevail in a battle over help for state and local governments, while capping the cost of bonus jobless benefits and direct payments sought by Democrats.

After two meetings in Pelosi's Capitol suite, where Democrats pressed for more generous steps to help individuals struggling in the COVID-19 economy, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gave an upbeat assessment.

“I think we've built a lot of trust," McCarthy said. “I think we're moving in the right direction. I think there's a possibility of getting it done."

The uptick in activity could be a sign that an agreement is near, though COVID-19 relief talks have been notoriously difficult.

“We're making significant progress and I'm optimistic that we're gonna be able to complete an understanding sometime soon," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Pressure for a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits run out Dec. 26 for more than 10 million people. Many businesses are barely hanging on after nine months of the pandemic. And money is needed to distribute new vaccines that are finally offering hope for returning the country to normal.

McConnell is playing a strong hand in the lame-duck session and is pressuring Democrats to drop a much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package. Several senior Democrats, including close allies of President-elect Joe Biden — who is eager for an agreement — have said they would go along now and fight for the aid next year.

McConnell says he'll drop a demand for provisions shielding businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits, a key priority, if Democrats agree to drop the $160 billion state and local aid package.

Pelosi has insisted for months that state and local aid would be in any final bill, but as time is running out, Democrats appear unwilling to hold the rest of the package hostage over the demand.

“We're not going home until this is done,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said on CNN Tuesday morning. “We've got to get people a lifeline.”

Manchin is an architect of a bipartisan $748 billion aid package that is aimed at serving as a template for the leadership talks. President Donald Trump's chief negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, supports a package with many similar elements. There is also bipartisan support for transportation and transit assistance, funding for rural internet service and help for the Postal Service, among other provisions.

A Republican familiar with the talks said the biggest obstacles include money for state and local governments; how to handle direct payments favored by Trump and Democrats but opposed by many GOP conservatives; and the restoration of a bonus jobless benefit of $300 or so per week that would supplement regular state unemployment benefits. The Republican required anonymity because the talks are secret.

Lawmakers also worked to finalize a yearend catchall funding package that will be the basis for the last significant legislation of the Trump presidency.

There's a hoped-for deadline of midnight Friday to deliver the completed package to Trump. That is when a partial government shutdown would arrive with the expiration of last week's temporary funding bill. But there's no guarantee that the massive yearend measure will be completed in time. If the talks drag, further temporary bills could be needed.

Negotiations on the $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill are virtually completed, lawmakers say, One hard-fought compromise would deliver another $1.4 billion or so for a final installment to continue construction of his long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The post-election lame-duck session is the last chance to wrap up the unfinished work this year, a goal of all involved, though they have been slow until now to forge the often-tricky compromises required to pull the measure together.