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Congressional leaders meet, cite progress in spending and stimulus talks

Afternoon negotiations lead to evening talks as congressional leaders press for a deal

Congress is scrambling to pass a coronavirus stimulus bill before the end of 2020. Here’s what you need to know about what’s included in the legislation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Congressional negotiations on spending and economic relief legislation picked up speed on Tuesday, as top lawmakers met for an hour in the afternoon and then again in the evening, a sign that talks are reaching a critical stage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hosted the three other most senior congressional leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — in her office.

Negotiators expressed optimism after hours of meetings, although they revealed few details about the nature of the talks. McCarthy said late Tuesday evening that negotiations were going “really well.” McConnell cited “significant progress” in talks later Tuesday evening as well.

“I think we’re close. ... I think we’ve built a lot of trust. I think we’re moving in the right direction; I think there’s a possibility of getting it done,” McCarthy said late Tuesday evening. “So we’re finalizing out, see if it’s possible.”

McConnell added: “I’m optimistic we’re going to be able to complete an understanding sometime soon. ... Everybody wants to get a final agreement as soon as possible. We all believe the country needs it.”

McConnell told reporters earlier on Tuesday: “We’re still talking to each other, and I think there’s an agreement that we’re not going to leave here without the [spending bill] and the covid package."

Schumer added, “No comment. No comment. No comment. Keep trying. I’ll just say it was a good meeting, that’s all.”

The first meeting adjourned around 5 p.m., and the second meeting began at 7:30 p.m. Lawmakers face a Friday night deadline to pass legislation before a government shutdown, and they are also trying to assemble an economic relief package to provide jobless aid and small-business assistance.

Schumer told reporters while leaving Pelosi’s office after 9 p.m. that negotiators would “probably” meet again Tuesday night, adding talks were continuing. McConnell and McCarthy met separately for at least an hour after the conclusion of the second bipartisan meeting.

The House is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, with votes expected at 3 p.m., in one potential sign that lawmakers are preparing to act if necessary on an agreement. And committee staff had been told to be prepared to review legislative text on Tuesday night, according to aides familiar with the conversations, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Momentum grows on Capitol Hill for economic relief package as bipartisan group releases two bills

The leadership meetings represent the first time in months leaders have met in person to hash out a broad bipartisan deal that could include hundreds of billions in spending on coronavirus relief. Talks remained very fluid, though, and it is unclear if a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks would be included in the final agreement. Similarly, lawmakers continued to wrangle over whether to include any aid for state and local governments in a stimulus deal.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also spoke for more than an hour about the spending legislation and coronavirus relief package around noon on Tuesday, according to Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, illustrating how the White House is involved in this stage of the negotiations.

Previous efforts to reach a compromise have failed since the spring. President-elect Joe Biden has urged lawmakers to reach a deal during the lame-duck session of Congress, and Democrats have signaled in recent weeks that they are more open to a smaller-scale package than they were before the election.

At an event introduce key members of his administration on Dec. 11, President-elect Biden appealed to Congress to pass a coronavirus relief package. (Video: The Washington Post)

Two main items were on the Tuesday afternoon agenda. First, lawmakers are trying to finalize a $1.3 trillion spending accord that will keep the government open past Friday through September 2021. Second, lawmakers are trying to pin down a coronavirus relief deal that is likely to extend numerous expiring aid programs and provide new funding to accelerate and expand distribution of the new coronavirus vaccines.

The renewed momentum behind a deal comes as senior Democratic lawmakers indicated a greater willingness to compromise and a forceful push by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to pass a relief bill before the Christmas recess.

Some lawmakers have also cited fast-approaching deadlines, such as the expiration of jobless benefits for 12 million Americans and rental protections for as many 30 million Americans at the end of this year.

On Monday, a bipartisan group spearheaded by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) released a $748 billion proposal that would devote hundreds of billions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small-business relief, as well as tens of billions of dollars for transportation, education, vaccine distribution and other needs.

The group released a second bill that had less bipartisan support, which would extend legal liability protections to businesses and include roughly $160 billion in state and local aid. Those two provisions have proved to be the most divisive for months, and most Democrats did not endorse the liability shield language.

The bipartisan proposal would extend the expiring unemployment benefits and eviction moratorium for one month. It would not extend a federal paid sick leave benefit currently being used by tens of millions of Americans.

It would also exclude another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, although that measure is supported by the White House and numerous congressional Democrats. On an internal Republican call on Monday, Romney said that the checks would cost $300 billion to include and that the additional borrowing had already made “people on both sides nervous,” according to two people familiar with the exchange.

Romney had pushed the stimulus checks and more money for vaccines in the bipartisan group’s negotiations, in exchange for dropping state aid and the liability shield, but was rebuffed, two people familiar with the internal deliberations said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that Trump would support direct payments as part of a package but would not say if they represented a redline demand for the administration.

“We are hopeful there is a deal there that the president then can look at and support,” she said.

Pelosi and Schumer first backed an earlier $908 billion offering from the bipartisan group of lawmakers, which would have included state and local aid. The Democratic leaders said the measure should serve as a starting point for negotiation, even though it was significantly smaller than what Democrats had initially pushed. In recent days, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) — the second-highest-ranking Democrats in the House and Senate — publicly suggested they would approve a relief package even without the state and local funding component Democrats had demanded for months.

Pelosi continued to advocate for state and local aid during a phone call with Mnuchin on Monday, Hammill said. The White House also included $160 billion in state and local aid in its latest relief proposal. But people close to the negotiations believe state and local aid appears likely to fall by the wayside as lawmakers move closer to a final agreement. Although several Senate Republicans support providing state and local aid, McConnell has made clear that he would not back legislation that includes only state and local funding and not the liability shield.

Lawmakers have so far been unable to reach a compromise on the liability shield, with Manchin representing the only Democrat to back sweeping legal protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

On Monday, Durbin endorsed moving forward with the consensus elements of the bipartisan plan, without the state and local aid or the liability shield. Hoyer on CNN on Sunday acknowledged Democrats would not “get everything we want” and suggested disbursing emergency aid was more important than holding firm on state and local funding.

“I want to be clear: I’m not giving up on funding for states and localities. This funding is essential in our fight against the pandemic and for our economic recovery,” Durbin said in a statement. “While the fight continues over these issues, we must provide some emergency relief for the American people before we go home for the holidays. I support the $748 billion bipartisan package.”

Lawmakers have little time to act. Trump on Dec. 11 signed into law a one-week spending measure that gave lawmakers until this Friday to reach a more comprehensive agreement to avoid a government shutdown. If lawmakers haven’t hammered out all of their issues, they could be forced to seek another short-term spending measure, which could push further negotiations into Christmas week.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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