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Coronavirus relief package talks driving to overtime conclusion

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 19, 2020

Jennifer Shutt CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers suggested the final coronavirus relief price tag may be growing closer to $1 trillion, as Democrats pushed for larger unemployment benefits, food assistance, payments to households and more amid GOP demands to curb special Federal Reserve lending authorities.

During a rare Saturday session, Democratic senators said Patrick J. Toomey‘s demands to sunset Fed facilities seeded with emergency appropriations in March was the last remaining holdup to a long-awaited aid package.

Toomey declined to comment. Nonetheless there was optimism that an accommodation with the Pennsylvania Republican, who’s in line to lead the Banking Committee next year if the GOP stays in control, was in sight.

“This is all getting resolved, well above my pay grade, within the coming hour,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., didn’t rule out a deal being reached Saturday, but said final votes could slip to Monday, after the two-day stopgap funding measure President Donald Trump signed Friday night expires.

“I’m told that’s the last remaining open issue and I think there are ways to compromise on that,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of Toomey’s demand. He wants to end Fed lending facilities which have been sparsely used, to the point where both parties are on board with repurposing the money for other things in the emerging relief bill.

But unlike earlier Senate GOP proposals this year, Toomey wants to eliminate the ability of the incoming Biden Treasury and Federal Reserve to potentially reestablish facilities like one set up to buy municipal debt issued by states and localities. With direct aid cut from the agreement, Democrats have been seeking to get financial aid to states and local governments any way they can.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, suggested that a compromise could be to sunset the new Fed programs, but leave policymakers’ hands untied going into next year.

“I think the Fed should be returned to the powers it had prior to the CARES Act, but I think other reforms should wait for another time,” said Romney, referencing the massive $2 trillion March aid law that set aside $454 billion to backstop the Fed lending programs.

Senate Republicans were expected to discuss the Toomey proposal at a lunch meeting Saturday.

On a conference call with her caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reserved special criticism for Toomey’s proposal to bar future administrations and Fed board members from using similar recession-fighting tools. According to a source on the call, Pelosi told Democrats that “for them to write in there that this cannot happen ever again is just beyond the pale.”

Earlier on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer referenced “a $1 trillion relief package” negotiators were aiming to wrap up, which is higher than the $900 billion target that’s been cited over the past few days. That could suggest Democrats are making progress negotiating the price tag up in exchange for a deal that preserves some of what Toomey wants.

“The truth is simple, we’re close to an agreement but we need to finalize and only really the Toomey provision stands in the way,” Schumer said.

Senate Finance ranking Democrat Ron Wyden said he was most focused on resolving the “Toomey issue” as well as provide more generous unemployment benefits, which earlier this week were hovering at around $300 per week. Wyden, D-Ore., said he wanted to get that figure as close to $600 as possible, the amount provided in March that ended in late July.

“What I’m spending my time on is essentially, particularly now again with the Toomey issue and the unemployment issue, and I’m trying to get it up as close as we can to the [$]600,” Wyden told reporters. “I’m gonna keep bearing down until the last minute to try to get the most help possible to all these families on an economic tightrope.”

Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “we’re trying hard” to get direct payments to households higher than $600 per person as currently envisioned. He wants $1,200 as provided in the March law, though that figure seemed unlikely. Sanders said Friday he might object to the big omnibus bill taking shape without “substantial” tax payments.

Pelosi told Democrats on a conference call Saturday that she was pushing back against GOP efforts to cut food aid in the package, according to a different source on the call.

Pelosi told reporters separately that the plan was to reach agreement Saturday, though she said that’s contingent on whether “Republicans actually want to do a deal.” She said the Toomey provision “has to be resolved and then everything will fall into place.”

Negotiators were able to narrow their differences on outstanding policy disputes, Thune said, but added “there are always little last minute items that pop up and so I think you’re trying to work through a couple of those.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t discuss specifics during his morning speech on the Senate floor.

“There is a kind of gravitational pull here in Congress where unless we are careful any major negotiation can easily slide into an unending catalog of disagreements,” McConnell said. “Let’s guard against that.”

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