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Capitol Hill leaders make progress on Covid relief price tag, but policy disputes linger

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, says he has "never been more hopeful that we'll get a bill."
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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in Washington on Nov. 17.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call pool file

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are growing optimistic about a coronavirus relief deal as party leaders came together Thursday on a price tag after months of stalemate gave way to meaningful negotiations.

But lingering policy disputes remain, and leaders still hope to combine the Covid-19 relief into a government funding bill by the Dec. 11 deadline to avert a shutdown. The emerging package includes more unemployment aid but excludes another round of $1,200 direct payments.

A breakthrough came Wednesday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., backed a $908 billion bipartisan measure as the basis for negotiations, lending support for a reduced price tag more palatable to Republicans than Democrats' previous $2.2 trillion offer.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Thursday that he and Pelosi "had a good conversation," adding, "I think we're both interested in getting an outcome, both on the omnibus and on a coronavirus package." The "omnibus" is a government funding bill designed to keep the government open until the next deadline.

McConnell has insisted on protecting businesses and organizations from Covid-19-related lawsuits, which Democrats are resisting.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., called it "a great framework" but acknowledged that some sticking points remain.

"There are issues — in particular, the size of state aid and the liability relief," he told reporters Thursday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Thursday that he has "never been more hopeful that we'll get a bill," adding that the $908 billion outline would be acceptable to him and to President Donald Trump.

"I've talked extensively to the president about this. The number is not the problem," he said. "It's policy differences. I think the president's of the mindset a bill would be good for the country. He would like to see it happen, but it's got to have the right policy."

Resolving the two policy disputes will be the key to success.

Trump remains a wild card, having shown a tendency in the past to make last-minute demands that disrupt complex legislative agreements.

Many Republicans are skeptical of demands from Pelosi and Schumer to provide additional money for state and local governments to fund police, schools and other services.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a close McConnell ally, said Thursday that he is negotiating with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on what the liability shield might look like.

"We're slowly but surely making some progress," Cornyn said. "I don't think it's been a matter of can we reach an agreement. It's been a lack of political will. Now there seems to be a greater sense that we have to get this done. So I'm encouraged."

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., at lectern, and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., second right, co-chairs of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, hold a news conference with fellow members of Congress to highlight the need for bipartisan Covid-19 relief legislation outside the Capitol on Thursday.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Democrats insist that any liability protections be limited.

"We cannot sign off on Mitch McConnell's idea of, like, a blanket liability, which will open up the floodgates to a whole host of bad conduct, putting in danger the American people," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a Pelosi deputy. "So nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon. But we're working hard to arrive at a bipartisan agreement."

The bipartisan plan crafted by rank-and-file House and Senate members includes $180 billion to provide an extra $300-a-week unemployment benefit for 18 weeks, which would include gig workers, and $288 billion in relief for restaurants and other small businesses.

"If you bring the package to the floor," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mt., "I think it passes."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that much of the $908 billion price could be reallocated from the CARES Act and that the new money that would be required would be closer to $300 billion. That could make it more digestible for conservative spending hawks.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said: "I'm supportive of it. And it has a chance of becoming law. ... That's pretty critical."

Still, some Republicans remain opposed to additional state and local funding.

"I continue to have significant concerns about bailout money for states and municipalities without significant controls around that," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

Hawley said he will oppose a package if it does not include another round of $1,200 direct payments.

"I'd want to see that included," Hawley said. "I don't know why we wouldn't give assistance directly to families and individuals who need it. It's fast — it's as fast as anything else.

"I'm not sure why it's controversial," he said. "I'm a little baffled by it."

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he favors the emerging package, describing it as an emergency measure at a desperate time when Covid-19 case numbers are rocketing.

"I like it. I need to learn a little bit more about the liability provisions. But it certainly is enough money to get us through the winter," he said. "My state, my hospitals are running out of money. So I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Garrett Haake and Julie Tsirkin contributed.