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Momentum builds for bipartisan $908 billion stimulus package as more GOP senators express support

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, walked to his office from the Senate floor of the Capitol on Thursday. President-elect Joe Biden's victory and the faster-than-expected breakthroughs of a coronavirus vaccine have shifted the dynamics of stimulus talks in Congress, leading to the first serious negotiations in months over another aid package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, walked to his office from the Senate floor of the Capitol on Thursday. President-elect Joe Biden's victory and the faster-than-expected breakthroughs of a coronavirus vaccine have shifted the dynamics of stimulus talks in Congress, leading to the first serious negotiations in months over another aid package.Al Drago/NYT

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke Thursday amid growing momentum for a targeted coronavirus relief deal, illustrating how Congress has snapped into action amid a surge in new cases and deaths.

They also discussed reaching a deal on a spending bill to avert a government shutdown on Dec. 11.

“We had a good conversation,” McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said after his discussion with Pelosi. “I think we’re both interested in getting an outcome, both on the [spending bill] and on a coronavirus package.”

The talks — their first since the Nov. 3 election — came shortly after a growing number of lawmakers have rallied behind a $908 billion bipartisan spending bill that would aim to buttress parts of the economy over the next several months. While some of these lawmakers stopped short of endorsing every part of the proposal, many said the offer was solid enough that it should be used as the basis for negotiations, a sentiment that Pelosi, Democrat of California, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, expressed on Wednesday.

Senators Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa; Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa; Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; John Cornyn, Republican of Texas; and Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, signaled their openness to the package, which had been unveiled by a group of moderate Republican and Democratic senators on Tuesday. The measure is more than what Senate Republicans had originally offered but less than what House Democrats had wanted, but it is designed to try and provide immediate relief to some parts of the economy as the pandemic enters a dangerous and increasingly deadly phase.

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Graham said he’s “never been more hopeful that we’ll get a bill ... the $908 billion bill, that’s the one I support.” He said he had talked to President Trump about the measure “extensively.”

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The two top congressional Democrats — Pelosi and Schumer — on Wednesday called the bipartisan offer an appropriate basis for stimulus negotiations, a significant retreat from their previous demands for a much large stimulus package. President-elect Joe Biden has also urged lawmakers to come together on an interim deal during the lame duck session of Congress.

Trump on Thursday also backed quick approval of a stimulus package. A White House spokesman clarified that Trump was speaking in support of the narrow measure introduced by McConnell, not the bipartisan stimulus plan.

“I think we are getting very close. I want it to happen,” Trump told reporters.

On Thursday, Ernst and Cornyn expressed measured support for the developing talks. Ernst, a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, did not dismiss the viability of the $908 billion framework despite expressing concerns about some of its policy provisions. Cornyn also said senior Democrats’ embrace of the bipartisan plan “represents progress.”

“I think it’s moving in the right direction,” Cornyn said, adding he remained concerned about the structure of state and local funding.

Grassley, the chair of the Senate finance committee, also signaled he’d be willing to accept the bipartisan framework if the details are right. “It’s a little high for me but more important for me are the things that are in it. And if everything in it has bipartisan support ... the figure might not be the biggest thing,” he said.

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Cramer, an ally of the president’s, also sounded a positive note about the push: “I like the effort. It strikes the right balance of compromise, and it’s a number that’s doable.”

Although there has been a sudden burst of bipartisan momentum for the package since Tuesday, it remains an incomplete legislative proposal that has not been drafted as a formal piece of legislation yet. Still, the rapid mobilization of support shows how lawmakers from both parties are trying to come up with a compromise quickly after months of inaction.

Coronavirus cases are surging across the US and concerns have intensified about the potential economic fall-out. Congress also faces a series of rapidly approaching economic deadlines, with aid programs for jobless Americans and renters set to expire before the end of the year.

With talks between congressional leaders stalled for months, a bipartisan group led by Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, unveiled the compromise measure on Tuesday aimed to restart negotiations. The plan would devote close to $300 billion in another round of small business aid; $160 billion for state and local governments; fund federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week; and devote tens of billions of dollars to other priorities, such as child care, hunger, and vaccine distribution.

It also includes a temporary liability shield to insulate firms and other entities from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a measure Democrats strongly oppose, although lawmakers were still hashing out details of that policy and others. The bipartisan proposal would not, however, include a new round of stimulus checks.

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In a floor speech on Thursday morning, McConnell did not reveal his position on the bipartisan framework, but called for lawmakers to swiftly approve additional economic aid. McConnell on Wednesday circulated a separate plan that broke sharply with key Democratic priorities and proposed no additional spending on supplemental federal unemployment benefits.

“Compromise is within reach. We know where we agree. We can do this,” McConnell said.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed approving the government spending package and a coronavirus stimulus bill “as soon as possible,” a Pelosi spokesman said on twitter.

Pelosi expressed optimism a spending deal could be reached by Dec. 11: “We’ll have an agreement. I don’t know when.”