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McConnell signals Senate Republicans don't want bigger Covid-19 relief bill before election

The majority leader told fellow GOP senators he is "encouraging" the White House to wait until after the election to make a deal.
Image: Senate Republicans Hold Media Availability After Policy Luncheon
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon on Tuesday.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his fellow Republican members in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that he is "encouraging" the White House to wait until after the Nov. 3 election to reach an agreement on a Covid-19 relief package with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to three sources familiar with the conversation.

McConnell, R-Ky., was responding to a question from a Republican senator facing re-election who pressed the need to go home to campaign after next Monday's full Senate vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

McConnell indicated that he agreed that Republican members need to campaign and that the unknown of a package is too unpredictable so close to Election Day. He said the final price tag, policy specifics and timing of any potential deal are still far from clear.

Shortly after his private comments, McConnell told reporters that he would bring the bill to the floor if a deal is struck in the negotiations between Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but he suggested that too many steps remain, and he didn't indicate a timeline.

"If a deal is announced, then it would have to be written, and people will have a chance to take a look at it. Then it will have to clear the House, and if all of that occurs, then, of course, we would consider it in the Senate," McConnell said.

The Republican conference is divided over its support for a large Covid-19 relief bill. McConnell is putting forward a much smaller $500 billion measure that the Senate will vote on Wednesday. It's a similar measure to the one that failed in September, and it's expected to fail again.

On the other side of the Capitol, Mnuchin and Pelosi continued negotiations on the outstanding issues in a bill that could total $1.8 trillion or more after months of back and forth.

"Their conversation provided more clarity and common ground as they move closer to an agreement," Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, tweeted after a 45-minute phone call between the two, adding that both sides are "serious about a compromise."

Democrats were quick to pounce on McConnell's leaked comments from the lunch, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., saying, "Whatever the reason, it is abundantly clear that what the Republican leader is offering this week is a stunt, designed to look real but designed to fail."

Many Republicans, pressed by reporters about their willingness to support the bill being discussed by Pelosi and Mnuchin, said Tuesday that they would have to see what's in the legislation before they could comment. But others were upfront with their disapproval. "I think it's very unlikely that a number of that level would make it through the Senate, and I don't support something of that level," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Still, President Donald Trump continues to suggest that he could persuade Senate Republicans to go along with a pricey relief bill, telling Fox News on Tuesday that "not every Republican agrees with me, but they will."

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Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Monday that it would "be hard" to find just 13 members of his party to go along with a potential deal struck by Pelosi and Mnuchin — even with the president's backing.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told reporters "I'm not sure that there would be" enough Republican support for a bigger bill.