WASHINGTON — It's a make-or-break week for Covid-19 relief on Capitol Hill as the U.S. death toll from the virus nears 300,000.
Congressional leaders have set a deadline of midnight Friday to pass legislation to keep the government funded, and they say a Covid-19 aid package should be attached to it.
But it's not clear that they can reach a deal in time.
Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over the size and scope of a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is demanding funding for state and local governments to pay police and essential workers, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is unwilling support it unless the deal includes robust measures to protect for employers from Covid-19-related lawsuits.
"I am very hopeful that, next week, we will be able to act on substantial relief," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Sunday on CNN's "Inside Politics."
Hoyer signaled some willingness to compromise over state and local aid, calling it "critically important" but saying Congress must "get the essential done" to help struggling Americans.
Congress hasn't approved major virus aid since the CARES Act in March, and case numbers have skyrocketed in recent weeks.
"The fact that nine months later we don't have a next round of Covid relief is something I personally am frustrated and embarrassed about," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "Bluntly, I will put a lot of that responsibility at the feet of the leader of the Senate Republican majority, Mitch McConnell."
Some Republicans oppose federal funding for states, dismissing it as a bailout for poorly run local governments. And a liability shield is highly controversial among Democratic leaders, who blast it as "corporate immunity" from wrongdoing. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has helped coalesce around a price tag of $908 billion, but it has struggled to resolve that core disagreement.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who said the working group will introduce a bill Monday night, sounded a note of caution about the prospects of a slimmed-down package without help for states.
"The reality is you've got to have both parties working together to pass anything. And the folks from the left say they don't want that," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "So, yeah, it will be great if we get past that. But it doesn't seem we can."
One is a $748 billion proposal that includes small-business aid, rental assistance and education funding. The second is a separate measure that includes $160 billion for state and local funding and the liability protections.
It was not immediately clear which lawmakers in the working group support each of the plans, and it remains to be seen how Pelosi and McConnell will respond to them.
An estimated 12 million workers will lose their jobless benefits on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, if they aren't renewed, according to the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. That includes freelancers and gig workers who aren't ordinarily eligible for out-of-work benefits.
Democratic and Republican leaders agree on some provisions, like renewing unemployment insurance and assistance for small businesses. But disagreements over liability protections, as well as state and local aid, are holding up the deal.
McConnell has proposed axing the two contentious provisions from the bill altogether, but Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have said state aid is critical to help distribute the vaccine and return to normal.
Meanwhile, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are pushing to include a new round of $1,200 direct payments. Sanders indicated that he will seek to hold up a final bill unless he gets a vote on his amendment to add the provision.
President Donald Trump has been disengaged from the negotiations, and his history of unpredictability on major pieces of legislation remains a wild card. The Trump administration has made a $916 billion offer that includes $600 direct payments but would sharply cut jobless benefits compared to the bipartisan plan.
Congress hopes to finish its year-end work this week and adjourn before Christmas week. In the past, the incentive to go home for the holidays has motivated the parties to resolve their differences.
"There's no way, no way that we are going to leave Washington without taking care of the emergency needs of our people," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said on "Fox News Sunday."