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Congress returns to deal with another coronavirus relief bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 22. Credit: Bloomberg / Al Drago

WASHINGTON — A battle over a COVID-19 relief bill awaits Congress when it returns to work Tuesday for a monthlong session in which it also must reach a deal to continue funding the government after the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin informally agreed last week to avoid a government shutdown by keeping a stopgap government funding bill free of controversial amendments, according to aides. 

The congressional battle could begin as soon as this week if Senate Republicans introduce a roughly $500 billion bill to primarily aid small businesses, schools and colleges, vaccines and contact tracing, the U.S. Postal Service and employer liability protection — but without any state and local funding. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who was not a part of the Pelosi-Mnuchin conversation — made clear in a letter Thursday to his caucus that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t get Democratic votes for that aid package. 

“As we return to session in the Senate, Leader McConnell is planning another round of partisan games,” Schumer told his caucus. “In the upcoming session, Leader McConnell and the White House may cut their original, inadequate, $1 trillion ‘skinny’ bill in half.” 

Schumer urged his caucus to remain unified to beat back that proposal — he called it “emaciated” — and to continue to fight for what he and Pelosi have insisted is another bold, big spending bill.

Doubts hang over any success at all. 

Senate Republicans are deeply divided on whether to spend any more money on COVID-19 aid, making it harder for them to push through their minimized aid bill. 

“I don’t know if there will be another package in the next few weeks or not,” McConnell said at an event in Kentucky last week, adding that talks between administration officials and Pelosi haven’t been fruitful.

After speaking with Mnuchin Tuesday, Pelosi said in a statement, “Sadly, this phone call made clear that Democrats and the White House continue to have serious differences understanding the gravity of the situation that America’s working families are facing.” 

Mnuchin and McConnell have agreed with Pelosi and Schumer that another aid bill is needed, but the two sides remain far apart on how big its price tag should be and where and how to spend another round of hundreds of billions of dollars. 

“Whether it is $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion, again, let’s not get caught on a number,” Mnuchin told a special House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis last week. “Let’s move forward on a bipartisan basis now. I do not think the right outcome is zero. Nobody does.” 

Yet talks quickly broke down last month after Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows rebuffed the offer by Pelosi and Schumer to meet the White House halfway between the House Democrats’ $3.2 trillion bill and the White House’s $1 trillion bill. 

“As we look at the number of things that we actually agree to, and the amounts of money allocated to those areas, probably the biggest stumbling block that remains is the amount of money that would go to state and local help,” Meadows said last week on CNBC.

Democrats, who included $915 billion for states and localities, have insisted that the next aid bill include substantial funding to cover state and local revenue shortfalls caused by the closing of businesses, stores, restaurants and bars. 

Still, Pelosi and Mnuchin sought to take one tactic off the table in the negotiations — the threat of a government shutdown by one side or the other refusing to approve short-term funding to keep the government open as a lever to get its way. 

“House Democrats are for a clean continuing resolution,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement, suggesting that both sides would avoid any controversial amendments or add-ons to a 2021 spending bill. 

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday, “We do believe that we’ll be able to get funding to avoid a shutdown.” 

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