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Pelosi says negotiators ‘close to an agreement’ on coronavirus relief, hopes for vote Friday

Top negotiators were unable to clinch a final agreement on a sweeping legislative package to address the economic fallout of the escalating coronavirus crisis Thursday night, pushing talks into Friday as they sought to close out a handful of outstanding issues.

After hours of talks and trading of proposals, including eight separate phone calls over the course of the day between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, President Donald Trump’s point person on the talks, negotiators are still attempting to iron out differences on specific language over a package that is expected to include paid leave, expanded food assistance, extended unemployment insurance and free coverage for coronavirus testing.

“It’s fair to say we’re close to an agreement, subject to the exchange of paper, and hope to have an agreement tomorrow,” Pelosi told reporters outside of her office Thursday evening. “We’ve resolved most of our differences and those we haven’t, we’ll continue the conversation because there will be other bills.”

Asked if she was confident that there would be a vote on a deal on Friday, Pelosi responded: “One way or another.”

The speed by which Pelosi and Mnuchin are working won’t be matched by the Senate, however. The chamber has left town for the week, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced earlier in the day the next week’s scheduled recess has been canceled so the Senate can take up any agreement reached by Pelosi and Mnuchin.

One of the primary hurdles to a final deal has been a Democratic provision to implement paid leave. Republicans have said such a provision would create a federal mandate by requiring employers to let workers accrue an extra seven days of leave on top of 14 days of immediate paid time off in the event of “any public health emergency” — something the business community, including the US Chamber of Commerce, has voiced significant opposition to on account of the potential cost burden it would apply to small- and medium-sized businesses.

Negotiators have agreed to narrow the scope of the mandate, while agreeing to offset the cost for small- and medium-sized businesses through a tax credit. Negotiations have also included whether to include funding for Small Business Administration loans that are a priority for Trump, though a final agreement on that piece has not yet been reached.

Key elements from the original Democratic proposal, which was released publicly Wednesday night, are expected to be maintained, including expanded food assistance, extended unemployment insurance and free coverage for coronavirus testing. The details of how those would be implemented in a final deal were still being hammered out Thursday evening.

House to act quickly if deal reached

When a deal is clinched, things are likely to move quickly, people involved in the talks told CNN.

House Democrats, at the moment, plan to move the bill under suspension of the rules when a final deal is reached, the people said. That would mean that Democrats could skip the Rules Committee so long as the bill has support from a two-thirds majority of members who are present and voting. The expectation is the bill will pass easily if all parties sign off.

The Senate has now adjourned until Monday, which means that if the House passes a bill tonight dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, the Senate will wait until next week to consider the measure.

“I am glad talks are ongoing between the Administration and Speaker Pelosi. I hope Congress can pass bipartisan legislation to continue combating the coronavirus and keep our economy strong,” McConnell said on Twitter earlier in the day.

This comes as GOP senators up for reelection did not want to go home without passing an economic relief bill. Many Republicans believed that they would be in an untenable position politically if Democrats in the House passed their own bill and the Senate left town without acting.

Congressional Republicans have reacted critically to a legislative package released by House Democrats on Wednesday night. Pelosi said at her weekly news conference earlier Thursday that Democrats are “addressing” some Republican concerns in their coronavirus response legislation, saying the Trump administration’s suggestions have so far been “very reasonable.”

But she pushed back on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s suggestion that the House stay in session instead of leaving for a week-long recess in order to further negotiate changes to the coronavirus legislation.

“We don’t need 48 hours. We need to just make a decision to help families right now,” Pelosi said following an earlier remark from McCarthy, who said that he thinks the House should stay in session to reach a deal and is optimistic that could get done in the next 24 to 48 hours.

“We are responding to their concerns, we don’t want them moving the goalposts, and that’s it,” she said.

“I’m not sticking around because they don’t want to agree to language,” Pelosi said, adding that members who have complaints should “save it for another day,” and for future legislation, arguing that now is the time to find common ground.

Senate signals opposition to first House bill

Even if a compromise deal is reached, however, it is unclear how quickly Congress would be able to act to pass a bill through both chambers.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Thursday the Senate won’t take up a House coronavirus bill that Democratic leaders are negotiating with the White House and hope to pass before the congressional recess begins at the end of the week.

“The Senate will act when we come back and we have a clearer idea of what extra steps we need to take,” the chairman of Senate Health Committee told reporters after a closed-door coronavirus briefing on Capitol Hill.

McConnell signaled earlier that Senate Republicans were wary of the emerging legislation — which includes paid sick leave, expanded unemployment insurance and other items — when he described it as an “ideological wish list not tailored closely to the circumstances.”

In a tweet on Thursday morning, McConnell said that he applauds Mnuchin and the administration “for engaging in bipartisan talks with Speaker Pelosi.”

But he added, “Unfortunately, Speaker Pelosi’s first draft from late last night was off-base. It does not focus immediate relief on affected Americans. It proposes new bureaucracy that would only delay assistance.”

Asked if he supported the House measure, Alexander said he didn’t know yet.

“I haven’t read the House bill. I’m not sure the House yet knows what’s in the House bill,” he replied, referring to ongoing talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told reporters Thursday he opposed the House’s bill “as it’s written.”

He complained it has a bunch of “Christmas tree ornaments” on it.

Last week, Trump signed an $8.3 billion response package to help combat the virus. The agreement provides $7.8 billion in appropriations to address the outbreak of coronavirus as well as an authorization for $500 million in mandatory spending to fund a telehealth program in an effort to expand access to health services for seniors.

On Wednesday, the first known instance of a congressional staffer with the virus was made public. The person, an employee of Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office, had no known contact with the Washington state Democrat or other members of Congress, according to her office. Several members of Congress have so far taken steps to isolate themselves amid the outbreak as a precaution.

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