Bipartisan COVID-19 relief talks hit familiar snags on Capitol Hill

rarrarorro/iStockBy ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Despite round-the-clock discussions among a bipartisan group of senators over the weekend, momentum on an effort to advance a $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill slowed Monday as negotiations hit a familiar snag.

Republicans remain focused on securing liability protections for schools hospitals and businesses, a poison pill for some Democrats. Democrats want to secure billions in aide to state and local governments, a proposal that many Republicans find unpalatable.

Without an agreement in these two key areas, the entire bipartisan framework could crumble.

“State and local money is tied to liability protection,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. “So there’s either going to be none for both of those or both of those that are going to be provided for.”

These sticking points are nothing new. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been laser-focused on liability protections since the day the Senate returned from its COVID-19 shutdown in early May and Democrats have included state and local aid in every iteration of relief package they’ve introduced.

While the Senate squabbles over these sticking points, Americans will go at least one more week without aid after months of partisan gridlock.

A bipartisan group met Monday evening to focus on liability protection. Members emerged from the meeting somewhat hopeful they could chart a path forward. No final decisions were made.

There were “all sorts of legal conversation,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. “But no conclusion.”

The group is grappling with how to retroactively protect businesses, hospitals and other institutions from lawsuits. They want to pause 2021 potential lawsuits to give time for states to craft their own policies. For that, they’re looking at possibly a six-month moratorium. But much remains to be discussed.

Democrats have opposed liability protections out of concern that they leave workers vulnerable.

The group will meet again on Tuesday.

On Monday, McConnell indicated he might be willing to strike a compromise on COVID-19 that did not include liability protections.

“We’re still discussing a way forward on a COVID bill and I’m anxious to see one pass — and I think the Democrats are as well — so that’s why we’re continuing the discussions,” McConnell said.

It’s unlikely, however, that such a compromise could be reached without also striking state and local aide from the package.

“If McConnell backs off the liability provision, I think he’s going to expect concessions elsewhere,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said.

But removing state and local aide is sure to upset left-leaning Democrats who were already apprehensive of the slimmed-down deal.

“I am very worried that the dollar amount is too low,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said. “People need help.”

Some senators, like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is part of the bipartisan group, suggested that moving forward with neither provision could be a potential work around.

“Leader McConnell suggested that we put a bill together where everybody agrees and leave the things where we don’t all agree until another day — that’s a possibility,” Romney said.

But for other members of the bipartisan group, removing the sticking-point provisions is a non-starter.

“The goal to get the 908 (billion dollar price tag) and get those categories and get that framework was absolutely critical,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said. “I don’t see anybody retreating from those top-lines.”

Asked Monday if removing liability protection from the proposal would require the removal of state and local aide, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., responded “well then maybe the whole deal goes.”

The bipartisan group announced their framework — which would give $160 billion to state and local aid, $288 billion to the small business loan program and $180 billion in additional unemployment funds — early last week. But despite working through the weekend, bill text is not yet available.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., emphasized Monday that the bipartisan proposal is an emergency measure that will likely leave both parties eager for additions.

“This is an emergency bill. Please remember that,” Manchin said on ABC’s The View on Monday. “We’re going to make sure that the basic needs of life, food, shelter, things that people have nothing to look forward to after December when this all is eliminated.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Monday that negotiations must be fruitful.

“Not getting a deal is not an option,” Hoyer said. “We have got to come together. We’re going to have to have some give and take but not getting a deal done is not on the table from my perspective.”

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced their support for the group’s proposal as a jumping off point for negotiations, but although McConnell spoke with Pelosi and the bipartisan group Thursday, he’s yet to announce his position.

McConnell put forward a separate $400 billion proposal last week.

President Donald Trump is also a wild card. The president has not yet said whether he would support the bipartisan package and his signature is crucial both in enacting law and winning over McConnell.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., signaled last week that Trump would support a larger proposal if he agreed with the policy positions.

Cassidy said on Fox News Sunday he believes both McConnell and Trump will back the bipartisan deal.

“President Trump has indicated that he would sign a $908 billion package,” the Louisiana senator said. “There was only one $908 billion package out there, and that’s ours. Leader McConnell has said he’s not interested in making a point. He wants something which passes into law. It only can pass into law if it’s bipartisan in the House and the Senate and ours is.”

Congress will buy itself one additional week to try to cobble together a solution on relief, as any provisions that can be agreed to will be tied to must-pass government spending bill.

It’s unclear if the extra negotiation time is a benefit to the bipartisan group.

“We’re going as quickly as we can,” Romney said. “I think there’s — there’s an advantage to getting things resolved. Deals have a life of their own, and if they drag down, get bogged down they end up never making it across the finish line.”

But while Congress continues to lock heads, the need for relief is becoming more urgent with each passing day.

The Chamber of Commerce found that nearly 12 million Americans will lose all aid secured by the $2.2 trillion CARES act, Congress’ last action on COVID-19 relief, by Dec. 26.

In a letter to Congress on Monday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the bipartisan package “desperately needed” and warned of serious consequences if aid is not quickly secured.

“Failure to enact a meaningful pandemic package along the lines recently outlined by members of both parties risks a double-dip recession that will permanently shutter small businesses across the nation and leave millions of Americans with no means to support themselves and their families,” Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley wrote.

Still, negotiators remain confident they can reach a deal with the limited time remaining this year.

Cassidy, asked if he’s still hopeful, replied “oh absolutely.”

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