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U.S. Senate vote on spending could slip to Friday, Pelosi suggests longer COVID-19 timeline

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. Senate vote on a stopgap measure to keep the government running could slip to the Friday deadline, a leading Republican said, as a top Democrat suggested wrangling over a spending package and coronavirus aid could drag on through Christmas.

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds a news conference with other House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 10, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

The Democratic-majority House of Representatives on Wednesday approved the one-week stopgap measure to extend current government funding levels until Dec. 18.

If passed by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump, it would prevent programs from running out of money on Friday at midnight (0500 GMT on Saturday) and closing.

The bill gives Congress seven more days to enact a broader, $1.4 trillion “omnibus” spending measure for all government agencies from the Pentagon to national parks.

Congressional leaders hope to attach a long-awaited COVID-19 relief package, the first since $3 trillion in aid was approved last spring to help mitigate pandemic-related shutdowns, job losses and other hardships.

The Senate’s number two Republican, John Thune, told reporters Thursday that the vote on the stopgap measure might not happen until Friday, suggesting some senators may be holding up proceedings.

“If there’s cooperation we could, you know, finish those tonight but at the moment it looks like we’ll be here tomorrow,” Thune said of the stopgap spending measure and a separate defense bill.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Congress could work on COVID-19 relief until Dec. 26, the day after Christmas when a range of emergency aid programs are set to expire.

“December 26, the unemployment insurance benefits expire. So some time before then, hopefully that Dec. 18th date, we would like to have this done,” Pelosi, a Democrat, said, when asked how soon a legislative package must be finalized.

“We cannot go home without it,” she added. “We’ve been here after Christmas, you know.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on a COVID-19 relief plan. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff told other congressional aides on Wednesday that he sees no way that group could strike a deal on the two toughest issues that Republicans would accept, a senior Democrat familiar with the conversations said.

Those issues are state and local aid and liability protections for businesses. A McConnell aide declined to comment other than to point to McConnell’s public remarks – in which he suggested those two issues be dropped from talks so that an agreement can be struck.

The pandemic has roared back to levels surpassing those seen early in the crisis, with more than 200,000 new infections reported each day and fresh shutdowns in some areas. More than 286,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far, and millions have been thrown out of work.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday that his discussions with Republican and Democratic senators have made “a lot of progress” with further discussions expected later in the day.

‘GREAT PROGRESS’

Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer say they view the bipartisan group negotiations as the best hope for a COVID-19 deal.

“I think they’ve made great progress,” Pelosi said on Thursday. “The values and the priorities that they’ve established are what we need to do right away.”

That group released a summary of their $908 billion proposal Wednesday. It would provide an extra $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for 16 weeks alone with aide for small businesses, vaccine distribution, healthcare and education providers and rental assistance.

A $916 billion proposal from Mnuchin on Tuesday included funds for state and local governments and liability protections for businesses. But Democrats criticized its lack of extra benefits for the unemployed, while including $600 payments for all individuals.

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