Hill negotiators race to finalize Covid relief deal as fight over Federal Reserve bogs down talks

Hill negotiators race to finalize Covid relief deal as fight over Federal Reserve bogs down talks

The goal is to reach a deal Saturday that can be endorsed by the so-called four corners of Congress — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — and finish drafting the bill language over the weekend.

Whether congressional leaders can reach a deal Saturday and can pass it before Sunday night when government funding expires remains a major question.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune warned on Saturday that the effort to finalize a deal could spill over into Monday.

“I’m still somewhat hopeful we could wrap this up if the House moves quickly and we got it, take it up, and do it tomorrow night, but I would say it’s also very possible that it rolls into Monday,” he said.

The ambitious goal set out by the leadership is this, aides told CNN: They want to reach a deal sometime Saturday so the House Rules Committee could meet Sunday morning and get it ready for the House floor Sunday afternoon or evening. It would then need support of all 100 senators to schedule a vote by Sunday night in the Senate. They may not reach that goal but that’s the intention.

The big hangup is a dispute over whether to rein in the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority. Republicans argue that the emergency lending program created under the March CARES law needs to be wound down as envisioned by that law, saying leaving it open would amount to a slush fund for the incoming Biden administration.

But Democrats argue that the authority is essential to continue to prop up the economy and say that the provision — pushed chiefly by Sen. Pat Toomey — would tie the hands of President-elect Joe Biden’s team.

Congress leaves state and local governments facing gaping budget holes

On a caucus call, Pelosi told Democrats that the main obstacle is the language pushed by Toomey to pare back the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority. She said there are other outstanding issues but that remains the biggest one, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

Pelosi said when she arrived at the Capitol that “the plan” is to arrive at a deal today, but first they need to resolve the “significant difference” over the Federal Reserve funding issues.

“We had this big issue, a last, kind of, minute thing with Mr. Toomey. And that has to be resolved. And then everything will fall into place. But that’s the big thing,” she said.

Schumer similarly zeroed in on the dispute in remarks on the Senate floor Saturday, calling it the “number one outstanding issue” to securing a deal.

Asked for an update on talks, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin replied simply, “Toomey, Toomey, Toomey.”

The proposal, Schumer said, “is not about Covid or helping the American people. It’s about tying the hands of the next Treasury secretary and the next Fed chairman in a true emergency.”

McConnell said Saturday that congressional leaders “need to conclude our talks, draft legislation and land this plane.”

McConnell warned, “There’s a kind of gravitational pull here in Congress, where unless we’re careful any major negotiation can easily slide into an unending catalogue of disagreements.”

Hill leaders are facing growing pressure to lock down a deal as lawmakers remain in Washington this weekend and are now up against another rapidly-approaching deadline after a government shutdown was narrowly averted on Friday evening when the House and Senate approved a two-day extension of government funding.

Leadership is planning to pass a stimulus deal alongside a $1.4 trillion government funding package for a new fiscal year, tying the two issues together.

But a series of outstanding policy disputes has created last-minute holdups.

With the clock ticking, rank-and-file members have become increasingly frustrated with the process, after leaders have signaled for days in a row that a deal is imminent, and with how little information has been released publicly about the details of such a significant bill that they expect to vote on soon.

Asked if leadership is getting closer to a relief deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Friday evening, “Yeah, we’ve been close for a while now and we still are.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced on Friday that the next votes in the House would not occur before 1 p.m. E.T. on Sunday, meaning that lawmakers will be once again backed up against a government funding deadline.

Americans wait as Congress stalls on pandemic relief

“We are hopeful they will reach agreement in the near future, they have not reached one yet, there are still some significant issues outstanding,” Hoyer said of the current status of talks.

The relief deal, which could have a price tag of close to $900 billion, is expected to include money for vaccine distribution and schools, jobless benefits of $300 per week, roughly $330 billion for small business loans, and a new round of stimulus checks, which could be set at around $600 per individual under a certain income threshold — half the amount given under the March stimulus law.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri have been pushing for a stimulus check of $1,200 for individuals.

Sanders warned Friday that he would not allow an omnibus spending package to pass the Senate if it does not include “substantial direct payments” for individuals and families. Asked by CNN if he considers $600 checks “substantial,” he refused to say. “I’ve said what I said,” Sanders replied.

Other outstanding issues include whether there should be further restrictions on eligibility for the one-time checks and whether and how long to extend the eviction moratorium, as some Republicans argue that providing rental assistance could be sufficient, but Democrats disagree.

This story has been updated to reflect additional developments Saturday.

CNN’s Ted Barrett, Ali Zaslav and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.

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