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Top Democrats Back Down After Months of Hardball with New COVID Relief Bill in the Works

The likelihood of Congress delivering another coronavirus relief bill is growing after additional lawmakers voiced support for a bipartisan, middle-of-the-road plan taking shape in the Senate and as top congressional leaders ended a months-long impasse.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the phone on Thursday, a conversation that came the day after Pelosi signaled a willingness to make major concessions in search of a rescue package in the $1 trillion range.

Pelosi’s spokesman announced the leaders’ conversation, tweeting that it was “about their shared commitment to completing an omnibus and COVID relief as soon as possible.”

“We had a good conversation. I think we’re both interested in getting an outcome, both on the omnibus and on a coronavirus package,” McConnell said.

The pressure to pass a second major relief bill is undeniably building, especially after Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats endorsed a $908 billion bipartisan agreement.

Some conservatives said they were comfortable with an aid package carrying the almost $1 trillion price tag. Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said the bipartisan plan is “the right balance of compromise and it’s a number that’s doable.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham added: “There’s a bipartisan package for $908 billion that will really help people.”

The $908 billion cost is what many Republicans, McConnell included, signaled they were willing to accept this summer as Pelosi pushed for more expensive measures.

McConnell insisted in a Thursday floor speech that any relief package be limited to consensus items like another round of “paycheck protection” aid to businesses, funding to distribute vaccines and aid to schools.

“Why should these impactful and noncontroversial life-preservers be delayed one second longer?” McConnell said. “At long last, let’s do what Congress does when we want an outcome. Let’s make law on all the subjects where we agree.”

Later, McConnell met with Republicans who are working on the measure, including Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Across Capitol Hill, a bipartisan “problem solvers” group reported growing momentum at a news conference.

A key McConnell ally, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said he is negotiating with fellow Judiciary Committee member Dick Durbin over a provision sought by Republicans that would give a liability shield to businesses, universities and other organizations against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

McConnell himself said a huge drop in Democratic demands — from more than $2 trillion to less than $1 trillion — was “at least movement in the right direction.”

President Donald Trump weighed in to support the idea.

“I think they are getting very close and I want it to happen,” he said.

Businesses, especially airlines, restaurants and health providers, are desperate for help as lockdown measures wreck the economy.

States need money to distribute a vaccine, and supplemental unemployment aid that provides additional weeks of jobless benefits expires at the end of the month.

Biden is supporting an additional aid package that’s as large as possible. He said Wednesday that a relief bill developed by moderates “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be the immediate help for a lot of things.”

The Democrats embraced the $908 billion approach from moderate Sens. Collins and Joe Manchin, among others.

It would establish a $300 per week jobless benefit, send $160 billion to help state and local governments, boost schools and universities, revive “paycheck protection” subsidies for businesses, and bail out transit systems and airlines.

“In the spirit of compromise we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by Senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

The statement was a significant concession by Pelosi and Schumer, who played hardball this fall during failed discussions with the Trump administration on a costlier bill. Their approval of the $908 billion measure was a retreat from a $1.3 trillion offer the two Democrats gave McConnell just on Monday.

The new plan includes a liability shield for businesses and other organizations that have reopened their doors during the pandemic. It’s the first time Pelosi and Schumer have shown a willingness to consider the idea, a top priority of McConnell.

Any relief package would be attached to a $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill required to avert a government shutdown next weekend.

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