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Still no COVID-19 relief bill as U.S. Congress faces shutdown deadline

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress looked increasingly unlikely on Friday to meet a deadline to agree on $900 billion in fresh COVID-19 aid and instead may pass a third stopgap spending bill to keep the government from shutting down at midnight.

The U.S. Capitol dome is seen at night in Washington, U.S., December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

After months of partisan finger-pointing and inaction, Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating intensely this week on what is expected to be the biggest package since spring to provide relief to a country struggling with a pandemic that has killed nearly 309,000 Americans.

They have reported progress, but enough differences remained by late on Thursday that talks looked likely to stretch into the weekend. That would force Congress to pass a stopgap spending bill – known as a continuing resolution, or CR – to keep the government operating for a few days after current funding expires at midnight while talks continue.

Congressional leaders plan to pass the COVID-19 aid as part of sweeping legislation to fund the government through September 2021.

The top congressional Democrats – House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer – had a series of telephone conversations with Republican President Donald Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, until late on Thursday evening, Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

“All three emphasized the urgency to reaching an immediate agreement and will exchange additional paper and resume conversations in the morning,” Hammill said.

Multiple lawmakers have floated the possibility the federal government would run out of money early Saturday morning if Congress cannot pass a CR in time.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber would remain in session through the weekend if necessary.

‘NOT GOING ANYWHERE’

“We must not slide into treating these talks like routine negotiations to be conducted at Congress’ routine pace,” McConnell said on Thursday. “So we need to complete this work and we need to complete it right away. That’s what I’ve said – the Senate is not going anywhere until we have COVID relief out the door.”

The prospect of a government shutdown increased pressure to come up with a relief plan. A shutdown could force thousands of people out of work and disrupt services at a time of high unemployment and uncertainty about distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

The coronavirus legislation is expected to include onetime checks for most Americans of about $600 each, extended unemployment benefits of $300 per week, help for states distributing the vaccine, and assistance for small businesses struggling through the pandemic.

Members of Congress said they were being spurred to action by an alarming increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to the pandemic. The U.S. coronavirus death toll is by far the world’s highest and many Americans – who do not receive government aid that is automatic in many other nations – are at risk of homelessness or inability to feed their families.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has also said he wants COVID-19 relief for Americans passed now, promising to do more after he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Republicans also have a wary eye on the impact inaction might have on a pair of Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia, which will determine whether their party maintains control of the Senate for the next two years or hands it over to Democrats.

House and Senate leaders are negotiating a $900 billion bill that would be attached to a $1.4 trillion measure to fund federal programs through September 2021. They hope to pass both in time to avoid a shutdown.

Sticking points in the talks include differences over a Federal Reserve emergency lending program, how to handle eviction prevention, food aid for the poor, and reimbursements to local governments for expenses like personal protective equipment for schools.

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